| 4 September 2011
Iron Age fort excavation under way in Somerset
The Ham Hill Iron Age hill fort site, in Somerset (England), spreads over 80 hectares - making it the largest in Britain and dwarfing better-known sites from the same period such as Maiden Castle, in Dorset, or Danebury in Hampshire. A major excavation is under way to explore its unclear history and researchers are now hoping to gain a deeper insight into life 2,000 years ago. Work is due to continue until September 2013 by which time the joint team from the universities of Cambridge and Cardiff hope to have a clearer map of its interior.
Niall Sharples, from Cardiff University, said: "It's a bit of an enigma. Ham Hill is so big that no archaeologist has ever really been able to get a handle on it. 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 the site may have been a monument and was somehow meant to create a sense of community, collective identity, or prestige. "We don't know if the site's development was prompted by trade, defence or communal identity needs," Christopher Evans, from the Cambridge archaeological unit, said. "Equally, should we be thinking of it as a great, centralised settlement place - almost proto-urban in its layout and community size?"
One of the key aims of the current excavation will be to pin down the rough date of the hill fort's construction. Although there have been Bronze Age finds from an earlier era, it is still not known when the hill was occupied and the ramparts built. 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.
The Durotriges tribe, which lived on the hill, was subdued in 45 CE by soldiers of the 2nd Legion under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, but what the Romans found there: a street system lined with houses on their own plots of land, is what archaeologists hope to uncover more fully in excavations over the next three summers. "There was a main road going through and regular enclosures with round houses in them - it looks rather like suburbia," added Christopher Evans.
At the moment archaeologists are focusing on a rectangular enclosure which was surrounded by a ditch, measuring about 100m by 60m. Several such paddocks appear to have existed, as well as at least one main thoroughfare and a scattering of roundhouses and grain storage pits. It is still unclear what the rectangular spaces were meant for. "Enclosures are not normally found inside hill forts of the Iron Age and it may be that this has a special place in its layout," Sharples concluded.
Edited from BBC News, PhysOrg, Guardian.co.uk (1 September 2011)
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