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The term hill fort is commonly used by archeologists to describe fortified enclosures located to exploit a rise in elevation for defensive advantage. This fortification consists of one or more circular or sub-circular earth or stone ramparts, often with external ditches, following the contours of the hill.
Beyond this definition the variation in types and periods is wide. Some were also settlements whilst others appear only to have been occupied seasonally or in times of strife. Further, many hill forts, after careful archeological excavation, have been discovered to have been used not for military purposes, but to pen in cattle, horses, or other domesticated animals.
Hill forts are especially common across Europe. In Central Europe, hill-forts start with the late Neolithic, but are especially common in the Bronze Age Urnfield culture and in the Hallstatt culture of the early Iron Age, and were being built until the Roman conquest in many areas. Julius Caesar described the large late Iron Age hill forts he encountered during his campaigns as oppida. By this time the larger ones had become more like cities than fortresses and many were assimilated as Roman towns.
In Scandinavia, hill forts are fortifications from the Iron Age which may have had several functions. They are usually located on the crests of hills and mountains making use of precipices and marshes which worked as natural defenses. The crests' more accessible parts were defended with walls of stone and outer walls in the slopes beneath are common. Round and closed, so called, ring forts are common even on flat ground. The walls often have remaining parts of stone, which were probably the support of pales. They often have well delineated gates which were probably of wood. Hill forts with strong walls are often located beside old trading routes and have an offensive character, whereas others are reclusive and were weakly fortified, probably only for hiding during raids.
Many forts, located centrally in densely populated areas, were permanently settled strongholds and can show traces of settlements both inside and outside. Older place names containing the element sten/stein were usually hill forts.
In Sweden, there are 1100 known hill forts with a strong concentration on the northern west coast and in eastern Svealand. Only in Sudermannia, there are 300, in Uplandia 150, East Götaland 130 and Bahusia and Gotland 90-100 each.
In Gotland, ring forts can be from the Pre-Roman Iron Age, but findings from the period 200 AD- 600 AD dominate. Many were still in use during the Middle Ages. For a unique fort, see Tingstäde Träsk .
Britain and Ireland
Hill forts in Britain are known from the Bronze Age, but were a most prominent feature of the Iron Age. They were apparently used for habitation or as fortified encampments during the middle to late Iron Age, before the Roman Conquest, and then again following the end of Roman Britain, for a period of several decades into the Anglo-Saxon period. There is however, strong debate among modern archeologists about their exact nature & use. In Britain the great age of hill fort construction was between 200 BC and the Roman conquest in AD 43. Where Roman influence was less strong (for example, in uninvaded Ireland and unsubdued northern Scotland) hill forts were still built and used for several more centuries. Some hill forts were reoccupied by the Anglo-Saxons prior to and during the Viking invasions.
The Maori people built hill forts, mostly in the country's North Island, during the Classic period (AD 1350-1800). Known as pa, the fortresses were sometimes sited atop extinct volcanoes and consisted of a settlement, sometimes even with cultivation plots, surrounded by ditches and banks. Wooden palisade fences ran atop the banks along with raised fighting platforms. During the Maori Wars, the design was gradually modified, with more below ground entrenchments, thick earthern ramparts and camouflage, to better resist British cannon.
- Borough Hill, Northants
- Danebury, Hampshire
- Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd
- Eildon hill, Scottish Borders
- Maiden Castle, Dorset
- Mount Wellington, Auckland, New Zealand
- Old Oswestry, Shropshire
- Old Sarum, Wiltshire
- South Cadbury, Somerset
- Heuneburg, Germany
- Traprain Law, East Lothian
- Uffington Castle, Oxfordshire
- The Wrekin, Shropshire
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