Function 1: Defence
Function 1: Defence
For much of the past two hundred years, a basic assumption has been that hillforts had a primarily defensive function. That they served also as settlements or for community gatherings, perhaps even for ritual or ceremonial activities such as seasonal festivals or inaugurations of kings, has been variously inferred, but it was not until relatively recently that the purpose of community defence within the framework of a hierarchical society was so fundamentally challenged. The reasons, however, were often based upon individual site circumstances, from which generalization hardly seems justified. At the Chesters, Drem in East Lothian (Figure 5.2a), for example, it was argued (Bowden and McOmish 1987) that the hillfort's defensive capability was compromised by being overlooked from the south by higher ground, from which missiles might have been projected into the enclosure. Tactically this seems odd, since the fort's multiple lines of enclosure, especially at its northwest- and east-facing entrances, makes it on plan one of the more complex multivallate hillforts in Britain. Whether these had realistic defensive capability or were intended primarily for display and status remains open to debate. Whilst it is certainly true in individual cases that hillforts were not sited topographically with tactical advantage as a paramount consideration, or that a regional class like the hill-slope forts of the south-west were apparently at a disadvantage from higher ground, or that the area enclosed by some hillforts was so great as to make their defence logistically impractical, equally we could cite hillforts where the enclosing earthworks by any standard would have been a very formidable barrier to assault. Every generation reads its archaeology in the conceptual context of its own time, and it is hardly surprising that a generation brought up with two world wars should have interpreted hillforts in terms of ‘invasions’. Wheeler's (1953: 12) description of Bindon Hill, Dorset, as a ‘beach-head’ could hardly have been conceived by anyone other than the brigadier who had fought through North Africa and the Salerno landing in Italy. Nevertheless it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the current challenge to the defensive role of hillforts stems not so much from individually anomalous sites as from a more general objection to the concept of conflict in prehistory, and is one facet of what has been noted earlier as the ‘pacification of the past’ (Keeley 1996: 23).
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