History of Hillfort Studies
History of Hillfort Studies
Popular perception polarizes opinions, and archaeology is no exception. Instead of complexities and paradoxes, we instinctively prefer simplification and certainties, even if this distorts the truth, except, of course, where academic compromise affords the comfort zone of indecision. Accordingly, Stukeley and the early antiquarians are regarded as eccentrics, concerned only with druids and ancient Britons painted with woad, whilst General Pitt-Rivers has been portrayed as the pioneer of modern, scientific archaeology in an era of dilettante barrow diggers. In Scotland, Daniel Wilson has been acclaimed for his first use in English of the term ‘prehistoric’, yet as far as hillforts were concerned he was scathingly dismissive of their significance. David Christison is widely cited as the excavator whose work at Dunadd on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland so appalled Lord Abercromby that he misguidedly transferred his bequest, originally in favour of the Society, to the University of Edinburgh for the foundation of the Abercromby Chair of Prehistoric Archaeology. Yet Christison's Early Fortifications in Scotland of 1898 was an authoritative survey of hillforts that was acknowledged as a model in Hadrian Allcroft's Earthwork of England (1908). Every generation likes to imagine that it has advanced the frontiers of knowledge to a degree that allows it to look upon earlier achievements with the benefit of better informed if slightly self-satisfied hindsight, but progress is seldom without its setbacks and sidetracks. Each generation hopefully builds upon the advances of its predecessors, and the questions posed by pioneers will necessarily appear facile to later researchers. Early antiquarian investigations had to address fundamental issues of basic site identification and dating, and it is salutary to recall that even Pitt-Rivers’ initial investigation of Sussex hillforts (Lane–Fox 1869) was primarily designed to advance the case for their being pre-Roman. We might also note that he was in no doubt that their function was as defensive sites, against one alternative view, current even then, that they were used for ritual purposes. Serious study of hillforts, notwithstanding the dilettantish curiosity evinced by landed gentry or leisured clerics, began effectively with the topographic descriptions and surveys of sixteenth-century antiquaries like William Camden, whose Britannia was published in 1586. This monumental work was revised and re-issued in several editions over a period of two hundred years, and was notably extended in Gough's edition of 1789.
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