Last week, on the same day that work started on the steel for our new extension, I attended North Devon Archaeological Society’s latest talk. The subject was “Iron Age Devon and its Hillforts”. The Speaker was Henrietta Quinnell, Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter and acknowledged doyenne of all things prehistoric in the South West of England.
Henrietta’s talk was fascinating. She treated us to a whistle-stop tour around the discoveries at Woodbury, Hembury and elsewhere. She has been involved in many of the excavations in Devon, and has studied nearly all the tiny amount of Iron Age pottery that has been discovered. Now she is using the changes in the pottery to help work out how the forts changed over the hundreds of years during which they were in use.
By far the most spectacular hill fort in North Devon is Clovelly Dykes, currently being investigated by North Devon Archaeological Society with the support of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Coastal Heritage project. As it is invisible from the road, the site is surprisingly little known – some amazing aerial photos of it recently created a surge of excitement on the “A Place in North Devon” Facebook page.
Despite Henrietta’s expert knowledge, it was very evident how little we know. Of the 73 Devon “hill forts” listed on Wikipedia only a few have been investigated. There is an enormous range of sizes and types: some are tiny promontory forts, some large enclosures with several layers of banks and ditches. Some are very clear, others are falling into the sea. And we really have no idea what they were for.
I was particularly struck by the discussion after the talk about just this question. Although some hill forts were definitely used as defensive enclosures at least once (Maiden Castle in Dorset is the most famous example, where a skeleton was found with a Roman projectile embedded in its spine), many others do not make defensive sense. Clovelly is one of a type also found in South Wales with very wide spaces between the banks, which are sometimes interpreted as stock enclosures. The forts often show many phases of construction and alteration – as if the builders changed their minds about what they were trying to achieve.
There is a problem often encountered by archaeologists who bring modern-day thinking to ancient questions. For us, a new building is all about efficiency – creating the thing we have imagined as quickly and cheaply as possible. Looking back at prehistoric structures, we often seem to get hung-up on trying to work out how many man-hours they would have taken to build, and whether there were enough people around to do it. Stonehenge is a classic example.
But what if hill fort building wasn’t about finishing the job, but about the process of building it? What if it was the intention to keep people occupied at slow times of the year, get them working together as a team and keep the youngsters out of trouble? How proud they would be of their role in creating this amazing space for their community. And if they decided it was time to change the entrance completely, or add an extra bank, what a great opportunity that would be for more time spent working in the fresh air, in our beautiful countryside and experiencing the joy of creating something together!
Over at the Pop-Up museum we are still gathering the stories and memories we need to bring our new Social History Gallery to life. So far we have collected 227 stories from 148 different people, and identified 36 “community experts” who are sharing their experience of living and working in North Devon with us.
When the Museum reopens we will have a wonderful, interesting gallery, but it is our intention that it will never be finished. In the 21st century it is builders and engineers who are creating the structure for our new community space, but there is room for everyone to be part of forming the content. We hope you will all feel proud of your achievements, just as those who built the ramparts at Clovelly Dykes did.