The Iron Age—a time when iron became the dominant metal used in tool making—is generally dated to about 800 BCE in Britain. Most of the metal had to be imported, so the real impact of the Iron Age in Britain corresponds to the development of long distance trade. During the Iron Age, British settlements tended to be enclosed by defensive palisades and during this time there is an increase in the construction of hill forts.
One of the largest Iron Age hill forts in Britain is Ham Hill. This fort has defensive walls and ditches which are three miles in length and which enclose an area of about 220 acres (88.1 hectares). From the perspective of today’s archaeologists, the size of this site makes it difficult to gain an understanding of its development and the changes it has undergone. In addition, the site is also a quarry which yields the prized Ham Stone and 40% of the site’s interior has been lost due to quarrying.
A map of the site is shown above.
Like most prehistoric sites, the Iron Age site did not suddenly appear, but was built on top of much earlier sites which appear to date back to the Mesolithic Period of 10,000 years ago. The Mesolithic is generally described as pre-agricultural.
Agriculture developed in Britain during the Neolithic Period. At Ham Hill, archaeologists have identified a number of Neolithic features, including pits containing pottery, daub, and flint tools. The hill appears to have been a significant Neolithic site about 5,000 years ago.
About 1500 BCE, during a period known as the Middle Bronze Age, an extensive system of ditches were cut across the hill. This formed a series of rectangular fields which were linked together by small causeways. This system of fields, which was maintained and modified over time, was a way of managing agricultural plots and livestock pasture areas.
During the later Bronze Age, perhaps about 1000 BCE, ramparts were erected. These ramparts were simply a low earthen bank around the hill’s perimeter. This was a marked change in the settlement pattern of the site which would last for the next thousand years. The construction of the ramparts would have taken significant amounts of human energy.
During the Early Iron Age, people constructed a circular walled building at the rear of the hill fort’s southern rampart. Unearthed by archaeologists in 2012, this feature has well-preserved, intact floor deposits and a hearth. While this area of the site has only been partially excavated, archaeologists feel that it provides evidence of a growing and thriving community at Ham Hill at this period.
During the Middle to Late Iron Age Periods, there was extensive development in the form of roundhouses and multiple clusters of pits and postholes. Many of the pits were used to store grain. At a later time, the pits were used as garbage dumps. The refuge in the pits includes metalwork, worked bone, decorated pottery, and worked stone.
During the Iron Age, the ramparts were enlarged with three additional phases of construction. The enlargement of the ramparts included both additional rubble and stone architecture with increasing complex design.
During the Roman conquest of Britain, the Ham Hill fort was assaulted. Archaeologists have found evidence that hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of people were slaughtered at the site and their bodies dismembered. Dated to the time of this attack, archaeologists have also found Roman military equipment.
Today the Ham Hill site is protected by English Heritage as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (no. 100). Archaeological research at the site is being carried out by the University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cardiff. The archaeological project includes the training of students and local community involvement.