Kent Archaeological Review extract

Kentish Hill Forts.
by Hugh Thompson.

Kent is not prolific in hill-forts of the Iron Age, as a glance at the Ordnance Survey Map of Southern Britain in the Iron Age shows. In fact, the eastern half of the county can only show Bigberry, near Canterbury, while the other five sites lie west and south of the Medway. On the other hand, one of this small group, Oldbury, is the biggest hill-fort in south-east England (123 acres or 50 hectares within the ramparts) and also one of the most recently and scientifically investigated, by J B Ward Perkins in 1938. He concluded that the initial fortification was the work of a non-Belgic 'Wealden' people in the first half of the first century AD, and that the site was refortified by a Belgic-dominated people in AD 43 against the Roman invader (Ward Perkins, 1939, especially pages 156-70). He developed his conclusions in an expanded report on his excavations and a general survey of Iron Age occupation in south-eastern Britain (Ward-Perkins, 1944). Building on the hypothesis developed by C F C Hawkes from a study of the Caburn pottery (Hawkes, 1939), he proposed a Wealden culture originating as early as the third century BC in the west-central Sussex downlands, and spreading thence eastwards and northwards into the Weald proper, to reach Greensand sites such as Oldbury, not later than circa 100 BC. Throughout the first century the area west of the Medway retained its Wealden' character, while to the east Belgic influence became increasingly dominant, with the river serving as a natural boundary between the two.

Bigberry, the sole site to the east, is of a very different character. Quite large (containing an area of circa 25 acres or 10 hectares with an annexe of circa 8 acres or 3 hectares), it is not set on a commanding hill-top but is more suggestive of a Belgic oppidum. Both the nineteenth-century finds (Jessup, 1932) and excavation in 1933-4 (Jessup and Cook, 1936) and 1962-3 (Jenkins, 1963) would probably confirm this, though perhaps as a final phase of a longer occupation. But whatever its history, there is a prevalent view that this was the stronghold which Caesar had to storm as part of a river-crossing (the Great Stour?) in his second invasion of 54 BC (B G v, 9).

If Oldbury and Bigberry stand in contrast to each other, on either side of the Medway divide, what can be said of the remaining hill-forts of Kent? Of the Wealden examples Castle Hill and Squerryes Park it is probably true to say that they echo Oldbury both in period of occupation and sparseness of finds. Castle Hill, near Tunbridge, is difficult to interpret. Following earlier work by S E Winbolt (Winbolt, 1929), J H Money excavated here in 1965 and 1970-1 (Money, 1975) and suggested the presence of two separate hill-forts, I of circa 3 acres (1.2 hectares) at the north-east end of the hill top, with a well-defined eastern entrance, and II of circa 2½ acres (1 hectare) to the south-west, of which (on the basis of single radiocarbon dates for each) I was earlier by about a century. However, this dating is quite inadequate, nor can it be quite certain that there are two separate sites, in spite of the evidence of aerial photography. Mr Money has certainly established the presence of defences for Fort II, crossing the hill top; practical considerations forbid the simultaneous existence of two sites, and in fact Mr Money argues that II succeeded I. He is unwilling to accept the hypothesis of II as the earlier, to which I was added later, leading to the demolition of the transverse defences of II. This would certainly give a more acceptable area of 8-9 acres (3.5 hectares) as the final enclosure, but there the matter must rest until the presence or not of transverse defences for I has been established. Unfortunately, the finds do not permit any firm conclusions to be drawn about date, but their very meagreness and the presence of sling-stone pebbles argue for the temporary refuge interpretation, a point which will be considered later. Squerryes, 12 miles (19.5 kilometres) to the north-west, presents no structural problems; it occupies a promontory of the lower Greensand and the defences (two banks with a ditch between, like Castle Hill) enclose an area of 18 acres (7.5 hectares). Excavation in 1961 (Piercy Fox, 1970) indicated that the defences were of one period and that the hill-fort had a brief history as a strong-hold in the first century BC.

Caesar's Camp, Keston, 7 miles (11 kilometres) north of Squerryes, seems to fall into a different category. Quite large, with an area of 43 acres (17.5 hectares), it lies north of the North Downs on gravels sloping from a height of circa 500 feet (150 metres) towards the Thames, 10 miles (16 kilometres) to the north. The massive defences comprise two or more banks and two ditches, and there are almost certainly a number of original entrances. Excavations in 1956-9 (Piercy Fox, 1969) indicated three periods of construction, of which the first two were possibly phases of the first main period in the site's history. The pottery, however, was all of Iron Age B type and the hill-fort can probably be broadly designated as Middle to Late Iron Age in date. There was no evidence for a Belgic (Ultimate Iron Age) occupation but, on the other hand, indications of possible destruction by fire at the west entrance. It is difficult to be dogmatic but the massive nature of the defences and the evidence for structural phases may refer this hill-fort to a Thames valley rather than a Wealden context though its final history may have coincided with that of its neighbours to the south. The other two sites are quickly dealt with. Hulberry, 6½miles (10.5 kilometres) east of Caesar's Camp, is regarded as a likely hill-fort on grounds of position, name and the discovery of Iron Age pottery there (Ward Perkins, 1944, 171 and figure 18); the pottery shows a range of date but the latest pieces are Wealden types. Charlton, over- looking the Thames, scarcely survives and little can be said of its cultural connections except that it probably belongs to a Thames valley grouping.

This brief account of Kentish hill-forts would be meaningless without some discussion of their immediate neighbours in Sussex and Surrey. Both High Rocks and Dry Hill Camp lie on the county boundary, the one largely in Sussex and the other just in Surrey. Excavation at High Rocks, near Tunbridge Wells, in 1957-61 (Money, 1968) indicated that this 24-acre (10 hectare) site was built in the Late Iron Age and, the excavation suggested, additionally fortified in the first half of the first century AD when it became a multivallate hill-fort. It is difficult to comment on this suggested structural sequence, but what is clear, on the basis of finds, is that occupation was extremely limited and no succession of periods can be detected within the pottery which is characteristic of a Wealden site of the second to first century BC: Belgic and early Roman pottery (imported and native) seems to have arrived later, perhaps when the hill-fort had already fallen into disuse. Dry Hill Camp, Lingfield, 8 miles (13 kolimetres) to the west, has a similar area of 24 acres (10 hectares) and is also multivallate. Excavation in 1932 (Winbolt and Margary, 1933) and subsequent observation during extensive trenching for the planting of fruit trees (Margary, 1964) produced virtually no finds apart from sling-stones, and it seems fair to conclude that the defences were unitary and the site never permanently occupied.

For a parallel to Dry Hill Camp one must go 18 miles (29 kilometres) to the west to the small hill-fort of Anstiebury, near Dorking. With its neighbours Holmbury and Hascombe, 3 miles (5 kilometres) and 10 miles (16 kilometres) further west, this was investigated by the writer in a campaign extending from 1972 to 1977. These are all small sites, varying from 6 to 10 acres (2.5 to 4 hectares) in area; two are multivallate and one univallate, but all are related to the use of the sling, since sling-stones and clay sling- shot (the latter from the univallate Hascombe) were present in quantity. Anstiebury produced virtually no evidence for permanent occupation and in fact, as a hill-fort, may never have been completed. Holmbury and Hascombe yielded a little more, but not enough to suggest anything permanent beyond the pits and hearths left by a work-force engaged on their construction. All three produced, from stratified levels, pottery of distinctively Wealden types with a broad dating of second to first century BC, while in 1977, a small pit or hearth at Hascombe yielded three Class I potin coins which can be dated more narrowly to the first half of the first century BC.

Is it possible to group the Kentish hill-forts with their neighbours in Surrey and Sussex? If the ultimate aim of archaeology is to distil some broad historical conclusion from a mass of material data, then it would be tempting to relate the Wealden sites to a single historical context. Nobody today would attempt to explain Iron Age hill-forts as a general reflection of or reaction to intrusive Celtic settlers in this country, but on the other hand the possibility of regional manifestations of this mania for building strongholds remains tenable. Thus, one hypothesis for the emergence of hill-forts in the Weald, as opposed to those of the Thames Valley or of the Downs, could be some sudden threat to a scattered agricultural population. And if one has to seek some historically attested event, there is no need to look further than Caesar's two landings of 55 and 54 BC. The brief foray of 55 might well have triggered off a general feeling of alarm in the south-east and led to the preparation of refuges on a large scale against a more purposeful invasion. The latter came quickly, possibly before the defensive measures were complete, and the axis of advance may have lain well to the north of the Weald. But the defeat of Cassivellaunus and the break-up of his kingdom on both sides of the Thames could have resulted in the abandonment of the Wealden sites as part of a peace settlement. The potin coins from Hascombe are vital evidence in this suggested chronology, but clearly neither they nor longer-lived pottery styles provide the precise evidence for this sort of historical conjecture. It is, however, interesting to note that by the conquest of AD 43 Kent had split into a Belgic area east of the Medway, with Oldbury and Quarry Wood Camp and its attendant earthworks (Kelly, 1971) as its frontier posts, and a pacified non-Belgic area to the west, as Ward Perkins had proposed (1944, 152).

This attempt to place some at least of the Kentish hill-forts in a wider context naturally leads to thoughts of further work. Bigberry, both in its isolation from the others and the variety of the finds from the site, is an obvious candidate, so far as it is possible to rescue further evidence from a site which has suffered from considerable interference. But a geophysical examination of the interior might be a useful approach to further exploration which might determine whether or not this was the site which obstructed Caesar's passage through Kent in 54 BC.

DRAWING: Hill forts in South-East England (adapted from J B Ward Perkins, <i>Archaeologia xc.</i>).

Hill forts in South-East England (adapted from J B Ward Perkins, Archaeologia xc.).
1. Antstibury, 2.Holmbury, 3.Hascombe, 4.Dry Hill Camp, 5.Squrryes, 6.Oldbury, 7.Castle Hill, 8.High Rocks, 10. Bigberry.


Bibliography A 14-entry table follows showing author, date, & reference.
Author. YearReference.
Hawkes. 1939. C F C Hawkes, 'The Caburn pottery and its implications' Sussex Arch. Coll. lxxx, 217-62.
Jenkins. 1963. F Jenkins, 'Interim report on excavations at Bigberry Camp, Harbledown, near Canterbury, 1962-3', Arch. Cant. lxxviii, pp. xlviif.
Jessup. 1932. R F Jessup, 'Bigberry Camp, Harbledown, Kent', Arch. J. lxxxix, 87-115.
and Cook. 1936. R F Jessup and N.C. Cook, 'Excavations at Bigberry Camp. Harbledown', Arch. Cant. xlviii, 151-68.
Kelly. 1977. D B Kelly, 'Quarry Wood Camp, Loose: a Belgic oppidum,', Arch. Cant. lxxxvi, 55-84.
Margary. 1964. I D Margary, 'Dry Hill Camp, Lingfield, Surrey, Surrey', Arch. Coll. lxi, 100.
Money. 1968. J H Money, 'Excavations in the Iron Age Hill-fort at High Rocks, near Tunbridge Wells, 1957-1961', Sussex Arch. Coll. cvi, 158-205.
Money. 1975. J H Money, 'Excavations in the two Iron Age hill-forts on Castle Hill, Capel, near Tonbridge, 1965 and 1969-71', Arch. Cant. xci, 61-85.
Piercy Fox. 1969. N Piercy Fox, 'Caesar's Camp, Keston', Arch. Cant. lxxxiv, 185-99..
Piercy Fox. 1970. N Piercy Fox, 'Excavation of the Iron Age camp at Squerryes, Westerham', Arch. Cant. lxxxv, 29-33.
Ward Perkins. 1939. J B Ward Perkins, 'Excavations on Oldbury Hill, Ightham, 1938', Arch. Cant. li, 137-81..
Ward Perkins. 1944. J B Ward Perkins, 'Excavations on the Iron Age hill-fort of Oldbury, near lghtham, Kent', Archaeologia, xc, 127-76. .
Winbolt. 1929. S E Winbolt, 'Castle Hill Camp, Tonbridge', Arch. Cant. xli, 93-5..
Winbolt and Margary. 1933. S E Winbolt and I D Margary, 'Dry Hill Camp, Lingfield'. Surrey Arch. Coll. xli, 79-92..
Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.