Evaluating the contribution that a study of ethnographic models can make to an understanding of the role of hillforts in Iron Age society is as fraught with difficulties as is a critical assessment of documentary sources. Divorced in space and time from the Iron Age in Britain and north-western Europe, there can plainly be no direct cultural association or expectation that the social, political, economic, or belief systems that governed behaviour were necessarily comparable. Nevertheless, the basic requirements of providing food, shelter from the environment, and protection from hostile threat are universal, and communities widely separated in time and space may respond independently to similar situations in ways that may potentially illuminate the archaeological issues under review. As with experimental archaeology, we cannot say as a result of studying ethnographic analogies, that Iron Age communities in Britain built hillforts for such-and-such purposes or in the process believed this or that; only that these possibilities might be examined as potentially satisfying the available evidence. When it comes to social reconstruction, it may be possible to identify broad categories of social structures in which patterns of behaviour are recurrent, and more tentatively the same might be inferred for cognitive systems. The fact that we may never know what Iron Age communities believed is no reason for failing to address the question, which is not the same as simply asserting what they believed without presenting evidence or due qualification. Modern or early modern ethnographic models suffer from the inevitable disadvantage that they derive from contact between the native communities and European colonists. In consequence there is the probability that, as with Roman records of contacts with Gaulish or British Iron Age communities, native behaviour will in some measure have adapted to the alien cultural presence. This would apply even if the nature of contact were peaceable exploration, commercial, or evangelical, since the introduction of new technology and novel goods and practices would inevitably impact on local conventions. In the context of any defensive sites or protected settlements, the introduction of firearms plainly will have transformed any established convention of warfare that pertained in the pre-colonial era. Establishing the native tradition from earlier periods is not an easy or wholly reliable exercise, especially given that practices may have changed significantly if slowly over generations.
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