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Letter From Wales

Hillforts of the Iron Age

Searching for evidence of cultural changes that swept the prehistoric British Isles

November/December 2015

Wales Hillforts Pennycloddiau


In late summer, the heather on the bleak, windswept moorlands of the Clwydian Range blooms deep purple. A series of hills and mountains in northeast Wales, not far from the English border, the Clwydians are today a popular destination for hikers who share trails with flocks of grazing sheep. Those making the arduous scramble to one of the summits are rewarded with views that take in much of Wales and northern England, including the craggy mountains of Snowdonia to the west and the distant peaks of the Lake District to the north. Below the range, the Vale of Clwyd (pronounced KLOO-id) stretches out like a green and yellow patchwork quilt, the boundaries of farmland marked by tidy lines of trees. This bucolic landscape belies the fact that dramatic events played out here some 2,800 years ago. Around that time, people were transitioning from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and, under circumstances that are still not entirely clear, built a series of enormous enclosures called hillforts, whose origins and ultimate purposes are, for now, lost to time. Archaeologists are currently excavating at hillforts in the Clwydian Range to understand both their construction and the conditions that convinced people to come together and pool their labor to erect these monumental feats of prehistoric civil engineering.


Sited on hilltops of varying elevations, and differing widely in size, hillforts feature deep ditches and earthen and stone ramparts that were probably topped by wooden stockades. The sheer size of the sites has drawn the attention of archaeologists since the nineteenth century. Much of what we know about hillforts in the British Isles comes from excavations in southern England where many archaeologists think the majority of the sites were initially built between about 700 and 500 B.C. But Wales rarely figures in discussions about the Early Iron Age. “Wales was always considered the periphery. But the Clwydians have one of the densest concentrations of hillforts in Britain,” says University of Liverpool archaeologist Rachel Pope. “When we talk about understanding the Early Iron Age, it makes sense to try to come to grips with what people were doing here during that period.” Pope, in fact, suspects that some hillforts in northern Wales may actually predate those in southern England. She is one of several archaeologists focusing on the Clwydian Range, and her team is currently excavating at the massive Penycloddiau (pronounced pen-a-KLAW-thee-eye) hillfort. It is the largest such site in Wales, encompassing some 60 acres. By one calculation, 10,400 trees would have been felled during its initial construction.


Another group, led by University of Oxford archaeologists Gary Lock and John Pouncett, has been digging for five years at a nearby site, the five-acre Moel-y-Gaer, Bodfari. Lock notes that the search for evidence in the Clwydian Range is challenging because the same acidic soil that allows blooming shrubs such as heather to thrive also makes preservation of bones and artifacts extremely rare. “You don’t get involved with the Welsh Iron Age if you want clear answers,” says Lock. Compounding the difficulty, he says, is the fact that the people living in northern Wales during the Iron Age mysteriously abandoned the use of pottery, an archaeologist’s favorite means of studying cultural change through time.



Animated Hillfort Reconstructions:
Moel Arthur