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Cymraeg

Inside Britain’s biggest Iron Age fortress

01 September 2011

Ham Hill - webDigging underway at Ham Hill

A major excavation at Britain’s biggest Iron Age hill-fort has begun in Somerset, in the hope that it will at last enable historians to explain the meaning and purpose of the enigmatic site.

The excavation is being carried out by a joint team from the School of History, Archaeology and Religion and researchers from Cambridge University. The team will spend three seasons digging a hectare of Ham Hill's interior to try to understand more about its layout and use

Stretching across a vast area measuring more than 80 hectares, Ham Hill dominates the landscape a few miles west of Yeovil. It is by far and away the largest hill-fort in the country, dwarfing better-known sites from the same period such as Maiden Castle, in Dorset, or Danebury in Hampshire.

Its sheer scale, however, also presents an historical puzzle. No Iron Age society could possibly have mustered enough people to defend such a huge site. Yet while it is therefore unlikely that Ham Hill functioned as a serviceable fort, nobody has to date been able to explain what it was used for.

Now a plan to expand a local quarry that harvests the site for its distinctive "hamstone", used in listed buildings around the south of England, has given archaeologists the chance to find out more.

This Saturday (September 3rd), the team will also be holding an open day at the hill-fort, giving members of the public a chance to come and find out about what they have discovered so far.

"It's a bit of an enigma," Niall Sharples, from the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said. "Ham Hill is so big that no archaeologist has ever really been able to get a handle on it. As a result there has never been a thorough campaign of excavations and nobody knows how the settlement was organised inside."

"People think of these places as defensive structures, but it is inconceivable that such a place could have been defended. Thousands of people would have been required; militarily it would have been a nightmare. Clearly it was a special place for people in the Iron Age - but when did it become special, why, and how long did it stay that way?"

Researchers believe that the site may have functioned as a monument and was somehow meant to create a sense of community, collective identity, or prestige. Establishing this remains difficult, however, while so little is known about Ham Hill in more general terms. Although tentative excavations were carried out in the early 20th century, researchers are still unclear about fundamental issues, including when it was built. One of the key aims of the current excavation will be to try to pin down the rough date of the so-called hill-fort's construction.

This may prove easier said than done. Stone axe and arrow-heads, as well as an old field system, attest to some sort of use in the Neolithic period, and Bronze Age finds which would normally be found in hoards or burials have also been unearthed. As an Iron Age structure, Ham Hill may have been occupied during the first century BCE, before being taken over by the Romans some 200 years later.

The current excavation has already thrown up a number of finds. The initial dig uncovered human remains - one full skeleton and the partial remnants of perhaps two others - as well as the skeleton of a dog. All are still being studied and dated. The team also found more signs of domestic life - the remains of a house, pottery, iron sickles, quern stones, bill hooks and other objects dating back to before the Roman invasion.

Work will continue until September 2013, by which time the team will also have examined some of the fort's massive ramparts and have a clearer map of its interior. A study of earlier finds from Ham Hill, many of which are now exhibited in Taunton Castle Museum, will also be carried out with a view to building up a picture of what life was like there more than 2,000 years ago.

The open day at Ham Hill will run from 11am to 4pm on Saturday, 3 September. Site tours will also be held every Sunday to Thursday at 2.30pm.

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