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A hill fort is a type of earthwork used as a fortified refuge or defended settlement, located to exploit a rise in elevation for defensive advantage. They are typically European and of the Bronze and Iron Ages. The fortification usually follows the contours of the hill, consisting of one or more lines of earthworks, with stockades or defensive walls, and external ditches.


The terms "hill fort", "hill-fort" and "hillfort" are all used in the archaeological literature. They all refer to an elevated site with one or more ramparts made of earth, stone and/or wood, with an external ditch. Many small early hill forts were abandoned, with the larger ones being redeveloped at a later date. Some hill forts contain houses.

Similar but smaller and less defendable earthworks are found on the sides of hills. These are known as hill-slope enclosures and may have been animal pens.


Some European hill forts originate in the late Neolithic period, but they are most common during later periods:

Hill forts were in use in many Celtic areas of central and western Europe until the Roman conquest. Julius Caesar described the large late Iron Age hill forts he encountered during his campaigns in Gaul as oppida. By this time the larger ones had become more like cities than fortresses and many were assimilated as Roman towns.

Some hill forts in England were re-used in the Post-Roman period and again in the Anglo-Saxon period as mint locations.

Types of hill fort

Beyond the simple definition of hill fort, there is a wide variation in types and periods from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages.Here are some considerations of general appearance and topology, which can be assessed without archaeological excavation:
  • Location
    • Hilltop Contour: the classic hill fort; an inland location with a hilltop defensive position surrounded by artificial ramparts or steep natural slopes. Examples: Brent Knollmarker, Mount Ipfmarker.
    • Inland Promontory: an inland defensive position on a ridge or spur with steep slopes on 2 or 3 sides, and artificial ramparts on the level approaches. Example: Lambert's Castlemarker.
    • Interfluvial: a promontory above the confluence of two rivers, or in the bend of a meander. Example: Kelheim.
    • Lowland: an inland location without special defensive advantages (except perhaps marshes), but surrounded by artificial ramparts; typical of later settled oppida. Examples: Maiden Castlemarker, Stonea Campmarker.
    • Sea Cliff: a semi-circular crescent of ramparts backing on to a straight sea cliff; common on rocky Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland. Examples: Daw's Castlemarker, Dinas Dinllemarker, Dún Aengusmarker.
    • Sea Promontory: a linear earthwork across a narrow neck of land leading to a peninsula with steep cliffs to the sea on three sides; common on indented Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and west Wales. Examples: The Rumpsmarker, Huelgoat.
    • Sloping Enclosure: smaller earthwork on gently sloping hillsides; not significant defensive position. Examples: Trendle Ringmarker, Plainsfield Campmarker.
  • Area
    • > 20 ha: very large enclosures, too diffuse to defend, probably used for domesticated animals.
    • 1 - 20 ha: defended areas large enough to support permanent tribal settlement.
    • 1 ha: small enclosures, more likely to be individual farmsteads or animal pens.
  • Ramparts, walls and ditches
    • Univallate: a single circuit of ramparts for enclosure and defence. Example: Solsbury Hillmarker.
    • Multivallate: more than one layer of defensive earthworks, outer works might not be complete circuits, but defend the weakest approaches; typically the inner circuit is original, with outer circuits added later. Example: Cadbury Castle.
  • Entrances
    • Simple opening: might indicate an enclosure, rather than a defended position; sometimes the main ramparts may turn inward or outward, and be widened and heightened to control the entrance. Example: Dowsboroughmarker.
    • Linear holloway: straight parallel pair of ramparts dominating the entrance; projecting either inward, outward, or occasionally overlapped along the main rampart. Example: Norton Campmarker.
    • Complex: multiple overlapping outer works; staggered or interleaved multivallate ramparts; zig-zag entrance way, sling platforms and well planned lines of fire. Examples: Maiden Castlemarker.

Some forts were also settlements, while others were only occupied seasonally, or in times of strife.Archaeological excavation reveals more about the dates of occupation and modes of use. Typical features for excavation include:
  • Ramparts and ditches
  • Settlement and occupation
  • Temples and peacetime burials
    • Platforms and temple foundations.
    • Graves and offerings
  • Warfare
    • Weapons: sling-shot, shields, armour, swords, axes, spears, arrows.
    • Sieges and conquest: ballista bolts, ash layers, vitrified stones, burnt post holes.
    • Wartime burials: typically outside the ramparts:
      • Contemporary individual burials by local inhabitants.
      • Massed grave pits dug by a conquering army.

Hill forts were frequently occupied by conquering armies, but on other occasions the forts were destroyed, the local people forcibly evicted, and the forts left derelict. For example, Solsbury Hillmarker was sacked and deserted during the Belgic invasions of southern Britainmarker in the 1st century BC. Abandoned forts were sometimes reoccupied and refortified under renewed threat of foreign invasion, such as the Dukes' Wars in Lithuaniamarker, and the successive invasions of Britain by Romans, Saxons and Vikings.

Hill forts by country

Scandinavia and Russia

In Scandinavia and northern Russiamarker, 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 gateways, the gates of 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 Swedenmarker, there are 1100 known hill forts with a strong concentration on the northern west coast and in eastern Svealand. Only in Södermanlandmarker, there are 300, in Upplandmarker 150, Östergötlandmarker 130 and Bohuslänmarker and Gotlandmarker 90-100 each.

In Gotlandmarker, 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.

The Finnish word for hill fort is linnavuori (plural linnavuoret), from linna ( ) and vuori ( ). Finnish forts were constructed mostly of wood.


Lithuania and Estonia

The Lithuanian word for hill fort is piliakalnis (plural piliakalniai), from pilis (=castle) and kalnas (=mountain, hill).

Lithuaniamarker has hill forts dating from the Bronze Age in the 1st millennium BC. The earliest examples in present day Lithuania are found in the east of the country. Most of these forts were built or expanded between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, when they were used in the Dukes' Wars, and against the invasion of Teutonic Knights from the west. Most forts were located on the banks of a river, or a confluence where two rivers met. These fortifications were typically wooden, although some had additional stone or brick walls. The hill was usually sculpted for defensive purposes, with the top flattened and the natural slopes made steeper for defense.

During the early years of Grand Duchy of Lithuania piliakalniai played a major role in conflicts with the Livonian Order and the Teutonic Knights. During this period the number of piliakalniai decreased, but those that remained had stronger fortifications. Two main defense lines developed: one along the Neman Rivermarker (against the Teutonic Order) and another along the border with Livonia. Two other lines started to form, but did not fully develop. One was to protect Vilniusmarker, the capital, and the other line in Samogitia, was a major target for both orders. This territory separated the two Orders and prevented joint action between them and Pagan Lithuania.

Most of the forts were constructed of wood and were quite easy to burn. As firearms and artillery developed, piliakalnis and their castles became ineffective. Also, the Livonian Order was defeated in 1236 in the Battle of Saule. The Teutonic Knights suffered a major defeat in 1410 in the Battle of Grunwaldmarker and did not pose any further major threat.

According to the Lietuvos piliakalnių atlasas (English: Atlas of Piliakalniai in Lithuania), there were 826 piliakalniai in Lithuania. Some researchers present a total number of 840 known piliakalnis in 2007; the number is likely to increase as even more of them are discovered every year. Most piliakalniai are located near rivers and are endangered by erosion: many have partly collapsed as the flooded river has washed out the base of the hill. Now around 80 percent of piliakalniai are covered by forests and are hardly accessible to visitors.


Varbola ruins

The Estonian word for hill fort is linnamägi (plural linnamäed), meaning hillfort or hillburgh. There are several hundred hill forts or presumed ancient hill fort sites all over Estonia. Some of them - like Toompeamarker in Tallinn or Toomemägimarker in Tartu are governance centres used since ancient times up until today. Some others, like Varbolamarker are historical sites nowadays.

Most likely the Estonian hill forts were in pre-Christian times administrative, economic and military centres of Estonian tribes. Although some of them were probably used only during times of crisis and stood empty in peacetime (for example Soontagana in Koonga parish, Pärnu county.


See also

  • Pilėnai, a heroic story of piliakalnis defense
  • Hill of Crossesmarker, former piliakalnis which now houses thousands of crosses


  1. Notes and Queries: a Medium of Inter-communication for Literary Men, Artists. Oxford University Press. Page 299
  2. Harris, Roy. Foundations of Indo-European comparative philology 1800-1850
  3. The Iron Age,


Hill forts in Britain are known from the Bronze Age, but the great period of hill fort construction was during the Iron Age, between 200 BC and the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. The Romans occupied some forts, such as the military garrison at Hod Hillmarker, and the temple at Brean Downmarker, but others were destroyed and abandoned. Multiple skeletons at Cadbury Castle indicate it was involved in a revolt in the 70s AD. Many of the place names of these sites bear the suffix "-bury", meaning fort. Some are called Cytiau (cytiau'r Gwyddelod, the huts of the Irish). Maiden Castlemarker in Dorset is the largest hill fort in England. Where Roman influence was less strong, such as uninvaded Irelandmarker and unsubdued northern Scotlandmarker, hill forts were still built and used for several more centuries.

Dunadd hill fort near Kilmartin in Argyll, similar to ring-forts in Ireland and Iberian castros

There are over 2000 Iron Age hillforts known in Britain. Some forts were reoccupied following the end of Roman rule, to defend against pirate raids, and the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The cemetery outside Poundbury Hillmarker contains east-facing Christian burials of the 4th century. The Wansdyke was a new linear earthwork connected to the existing hill fort at Maes Knollmarker, which defined the Celtic-Saxon border in south-west England during the period 577-652 AD.

Some hill forts were reoccupied by the Anglo-Saxons during the period of Viking raids. King Alfred established a network of coastal hill forts and lookout posts in Wessexmarker, linked by a Herepath, or military road, which enabled his armies to cover Viking movements at sea. For example, see Daw's Castlemarker and Battle of Cynwitmarker.

After careful archaeological excavation, it has been found that many so-called hill forts were just used to pen in cattle, horses, or other domesticated animals. The large sprawling examples at Bindon Hillmarker and Bathampton Downmarker are more than 50 acres (20 ha). Even those that were defensive settlements in the Iron Age, were sometimes used for coralling animals in later periods. For example, see Coney's Castlemarker, Dolebury Warrenmarker and Pilsdon Penmarker.



  • Iron Age Communities in Britain, Barry Cunliffe (1974) ISBN 0-7100-8725-X
  • Iron Age Settlements and Pottery 650 BC - 60 AD, by Barry Cunliffe, and Hillforts and Hilltops 1000 BC - 1000 AD, by Ian Burrow, in The Archaeology of Somerset (1982) ISBN 0-86183-028-8


Exterior view of Grianan of Aileach situated in County Donegal.
A Bronze-age and Iron-age type of defended settlement from prehistoric Ireland is the hill-fort: a large circular type between 1 and 40 acres (more usually 5-10acres) enclosed by a stone wall or earthen rampart or both. These hill-forts are strategically located on top of large stand alone hills if possible to ensure maximum defence against raids from neighbouring enemies. These would have been tribally important centres where the Chief or King of the area would live with his extended family and support themselves by farming and renting cattle to their underlings.

There are around 40 hill-forts known in Ireland: about 12 are multivallate forts, as distinguished by multiple ramparts, or a large counterscarp (outer bank). The imposing example at Mooghaun is defended by multiple stone walls. One must be careful to not confuse a hill-fort with a 'ringfort' a medieval settlement a common archaeological feature across the whole island of Ireland, over 40,000 examples are known.

Some hill-forts have cairns inside their boundaries and there are many speculations about this phenomena, the theories range from being a strange cult religion to just co-incidence the same kind of area as they both like (hill tops with commanding views of the local viscinity), the excavation at Freestone Hill in Co. Kilkenny has shown that there was indeed a ditch cut out around the cairn, evidence that they had respect for the feature no matter what they believed about it.


  • Lyles Hill, Co. Antrim
  • Maghera Temple, Co. Cavan
  • Mooghaun, Co. Clare (multivallate)
  • Grianán of Aileachmarker, Co. Donegal (multivallate)
  • Dunbeg, Co. Down
  • Downpatrick, Co. Down
  • Caherconreemarker, Co. Kerry
  • Dún Ailinnemarker, Co. Kildare
  • Dunmurray Hill, Co. Kildare
  • Freestone Hill, Co. Kilkenny
  • Spa Hill, Co. Kilkenny
  • Rath Meave at Tara, Co. Meath
  • Clogher, Co. Tyrone
  • Emain Machamarker, Co. Armagh
  • Brusselstown Ring, Co. Wicklow
  • Rathgall, Co. Wicklow (multivallate)


Portugal and Spain

In Galiciamarker, Asturiasmarker, Cantabriamarker and Northern Portugalmarker a castro is a fortified pre-Roman Iron Age Celtic village, usually located on a hill or some naturally easy defendable place. [23823]The larger castros are called citanias or cividades (English: cities).

Castros were located on hilltops, which allowed tactical control over the surrounding countryside and provided natural defenses. They invariably had a spring or small creek to provide water; some even had large reservoirs to use during sieges.Typically, a castro has a triple loose stone and earth wall, which complements the natural defenses of the hill. The houses inside are about 3.5–5 m long. Most of the houses are circular in shape, although some are rectangular and they are made out of stone with thatch roofs that rest on a wood column in the centre of the building. Their streets are somewhat regular, suggesting some form of central organization. Castros vary in diameter from dozens of metres to several hundred.

Castros were mostly places of refuge during the frequent Celtic tribal wars, although many, including all the citanias, were continuously inhabited, as well.

Many castros were already inhabited during the Bronze Age, long before the Celtic invasions, and it is thought that the Iberian culture of these settlements largely survived the Celtic influx, with which it blended, adopting the Celtic Language as a lingua franca with their commercial contacts along the Atlanticmarker Coast.

Many of the megaliths from the Bronze Age such as menhirs and dolmens, which are frequently located near the castros, also predate the Celts in Portugalmarker, Asturiasmarker and Galiciamarker as well as in Atlantic Francemarker, Britain and Irelandmarker. These megaliths were probably reused in syncretic rituals by the Celtic Druids.

Although many castros were destroyed by the Romans, others were expanded into proper cities.

The Celtiberian people occupied an inland region in central northern Spain, straddling the upper valleys of the Ebro, Douromarker and Tajomarker. They built hillforts, fortified hilltop towns and oppida, including Numantiamarker.



  • Detailed map of the Pre-Roman Peoples of Iberia (around 200 BC) - (Map of Pre-Roman Peoples and Languages of Iberia)
  • SILVA, A. J. M. (2009), Vivre au delá du fleuve de l'Oubli. Portrait de la communauté villageoise du Castro do Vieito, au moment de l'intégration du NO de la péninsule ibérique dans l'orbis romanum (estuaire du Rio Lima, NO du Portugal), Phd Thesis presented at Coimbra University in Mars 2009, 188p. PDF version.

See also


The Gaulish hero Vercingetorix was famously besieged by Julius Caesar in the hill fort of Alesia. The predominant form of rampart construction was murus gallicus.


Central Europe

The Hallstatt and La Tenemarker cultures originated in what is now southern Germanymarker, Switzerlandmarker, Austriamarker, and the Czech Republicmarker. However, hill forts were built also in Polandmarker and further east, till the Middle Ages.

The predominant form of rampart construction is pfostenschlitzmauer, or Kelheim-style. The murus gallicus defenses at Manching were later rebuilt and extended in the pfostenschlitzmauer style.


See also


Further reading

  • The Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe (1997) ISBN 0-14-025422-6
  • Celtic Fortifications, Ian Ralston (2006) ISBN 0-7524-2500-5

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