The Landscape Context of Danebury Hillfort



Danebury chalkland setting

Danebury in its chalkland setting


Hampshire sited on a hill some 465 feet above sea level. Seldom does the downland around Danebury hillfort rise above 330 feet. Occupying the termination of an east to west ridge it is surrounded by countryside of light soils and undulating slopes. ows Danebury’s present-day location is a chalkland setting and Figure 1 is an aerial photograph of Danebury showing ramparts, main entrance and overlapping earthworks protecting the gate. The region surrounding Danebury comprises a chalk , The hillfort of Danebury dominates the rolling downland landscape of western downland landscape situated between the rivers Test and Bourne. The area stretches from the higher downs situated to thenorth of Andover southwards to the periphery of the Hampshire Basin (Cunliffe, 1993a). On the southern boundary Tertiary clays and difficult sandy terrain proved an inhospitable prospect to prehistoric communities. It is intended to describe the Danebury region, outline the development of Danebury hillfort, and discuss the region in its main phases — the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. In this way Danebury can be placed in the context of its surrounding landscape over a period of several millennia.

Danebury aerial

Aerial view of Danebury Hill Fort

The Danebury Hillfort and its Region 

Danebury is the most studied hillfort in Britain with some one fifth of its interior excavated. Danebury shows evidence of three distinct circuitous earthworks, an inner, a middle, and an outer. The rampart system encloses an area of some 12 acres. The site had originally three entrances, one wider than the other two, the whole complex approached by a linear earthwork. This earthwork, which linked with the enclosure ditch, was of double ditched form. It is known that that some early hillforts developed out of pre-existing ditched enclosures which were alsoattached to linear boundary earthworks (Cunliffe, 1993b). It is known that Danebury became the centre of tribal territory covering some 30 to 40 square miles (Cunliffe, 1978) and , in common with other hillforts, developed as a focal point along a complex of linear ditches constructed previously (Cunliffe, 1993b). Figure 2shows the hillforts of southern Britain and their relation to Danebury.

The development of the landscape surrounding Danebury can be understood by referring to a number of key locations or sites. Firstly: Woolbury is a neighbouring hillfort situated east of the river Itchen and related to an extensive linear boundary system that stretched several kilometres; secondly, the Bury Hill site shows two separate and distinct developmental phases; thirdly Sudden Farm with its now ploughed out double ditched enclosure (Cunliffe, 1993a). The later phase of Bury Hill — a double rampart and ditch — indicated possible competition with Danebury. The development of Sudden Farm is Late Iron Age and follows the abandonment of Danebury.

Neighbouring hillforts and other major Iron Age sites of the Danebury region proves that Danebury is only one site in this complex landscape. As will become apparent the area was densely populated and extensively exploited by prehistoric communities from the first millennium BC. Additional sites are Meon Hill (an Iron Age farm) two and a half miles south of Danebury, plus other nearby hillforts Quarley Hill, Figsbury, and Balksbury. The early Wessex hillforts, including Danebury, were of a standardised pattern comprising contoured works of some 5 to 6 hectares in extent. In addition there were two entrances on opposite sides. Most of the evidence for hillforts in Wessex is derived from Danebury. Within Danebury are functioning areas that were continuously replaced and repaired. This organised internal structure, coupled with evidence of intensive occupation of Danebury, established a general pattern to which Maiden Castle and South Cadbury also conformed. At Danebury, as with Maiden Castle, one entrance was extended forward for defensive purposes with passages projecting beyond the actual wooden entrance gate.

The Danebury Region during the Neolithic Period

During the Neolithic period of around the 4th to the 3′ millennium BC there is evidence of 15 or 16 long barrows, two flint mining areas, as well as a group of 3 pits containing Peterborough pottery. These long barrows form three groups around hills that were later fortified — Sidbury, Figsbury, and Danebury (Palmer, 1984). In addition two more long barrows are found at Sudden Farm and Martins Farm. It is thought the grouped long barrows may represent the existence of separate communities which “… may focus on certain ‘locations within larger territories…” (Palmer, 1984). At Danebury this may be probable. The long barroWs at Fussell’s Lodge gave 3230 BC plus or minus 150, and those at Nutbane of 2730 BC plus or minus 150. Similarly the flint mines of Easton Down gave 2530 plus or minus 150. There have been no definite henge monuments found in the region and there is little evidence of later Neolithic occupations (Palmer, 1984).

Danebury Region During the Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age circa 2″d and early !$t millennium BC there is little evidence of settlement until later in the 2″d millennium BC when some small rectilinear enclosures were constructed. During the Bronze Age there were two phases of activity encompassing earlier Bronze Age round barrows, and a middle Bronze Age period which developed a linear ditch system (Palmer, 1984). It is thought the linear ditches were constructed using the round barrows as sight markers, and two examples are the spinal linears at Quarley. The radiocarbon dates for the round barrows are for the first half of the 2″d millennium BC. The barrows are appear related to field systems as well as an association existing surface water, the water sources of Wallop and Pillhill brooks. Moreover there is a definite connection with the rivers Test and Anton. The environs of Danebury, during the Middle and Later Bronze Age, field blocks developed in association with systems of linear ditches, e.g., the Quarley linears have Bronze Age radiocarbon dates, as do the linear ditches of the area around Sudden Farm.

It is at this time that there is a return to building ditched enclosures as shown at Thorny Down and Boscombe Down, with further enclosure identification at East Winterslow and Brigweston Down East. These enclosures are accompanied by settlement sites and are contemporary with the ritual pits found at Danebury. Danebury Hillfort itself now “…appears as a focus of several linear ditches but there is no evidence that they are certainly of the bronze age…” (Palmer, 1984). Indeed Danebury there seems to be a similar sequential development to that found at Quarley Hill (Cunliffe, 1993b) with Danebury functioning as a nexus of a linear boundary system where a palisaded enclosure was built. Furthermore the hillfort is within a ditched enclosure at the terminus of a Late Bronze Age linear. In addition evidence obtained from the early palisaded enclosure showed the remains of a number of four-post storage structures. It is only later, during the mid-6th century BC, that Danebury’s palisade was replaced by a rampart and ditch (Cunliffe, 1990).

The Danebury Region During the Iron Age

The Iron Age period extends from around 600 BC up until late post-Roman times of 5th century AD. There is now a far greater occupation density compared to previous ,periods which is the result of “…continuing gradual development of the agricultural potential of the land.” (Palmer, 1984). Figure 4shows the Iron Age activities in the Danebury region. Hillforts were constructed, with a variety of styles, in same numbers in Wessex during the 6th and 5th centuries BC.


Artist’s reconstruction of Iron Age Danebury

It is not possible to show continuous occupation of Danebury but structure density and occupation quantity suggest intensive use for a considerable time (Cunliffe, 1993b). Hil!forts in Wessex, therefore, continue into the middle Iron Age and include Danebury, Maiden Castle, and South Cadbury. They were re-defended on massive scale and occupation became increasingly intensive. The early phase at Danebury, with a radiocarbon date of 500 BC plus or minus 80, shows many roundhouses, circular pits and silos sunk into the ‘chalk. (Darvill, 1998), with evidence that outer ramparts may have been used as cattle corrals (Dyer, 1992). Danebury now indicates a site of aggregated families under a coercive authority (Ounliffe, 1993b).

danebury iron age pots

Iron Age pots from Danebury hill fort

After this period there developed organised territories centred on hillforts which, after the third century BC, led to the construction of complex ditched enclosures. Seven sites west of the river Bourne were spaced at 1000 metre intervals. The linear ditch system indicates communication was one of their major functions. Relationships appear which suggest an association between fields and enclosures with the fields controlled by an adjacent hillfort.

Consolidation of territorial control and construction of developed hillforts indicates warlike society and local conflict. Many hillforts were built during the 5th and 6th centuries BC but during the 4th there was a decline. Surviving forts were now more heavily defended. Danebury became the centre of a redistributive system and local There is much evidence that Danebury was also a centre of ritual activity and religious practice during the early and middle Iron Age.


The clues to the Danebury contextual landscape are to be found in the organisation of Iron Age society. The cultural background, of the ancient landscape that stretches over several millennia is very complex and represents “…a palimpsest of hundreds of years of human, activity…” (Cunliffe, 1993a). Aerial photography shows that hillforts, farms, settlements, field systems, and linear boundaries existed in large numbers. During the period 1000 tO 600 l3C the landscape underwent large scale reorganisation and development of agricultural and trade systems. Earlier phases, are difficult to determine because of the dense occupation of the later period.

Also by the late 4th century BC, only Danebury remained in occupation having been refortified and intensively used on a large scale. One explanation is that the early Iron Age was a period of competing social or tribal groups which by the end of the 4th century BC had consolidated into a single polity (Cunliffe, 1993a) with Danebury assuming a position of central leadership. By the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC the usable Wessex downland was a landscape of wide and intensive settlement. The landscape context of the Danebury region became one characterised by a mixed economy controlled by a centralised power — with Danebury featuring as a ritual centre, and an active site for defence, exchange and redistribution.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2003).

References cited and sources used

Cunliffe, B. 1978. Iron Age Communities in Britain. Routledge, London. Cunliffe, B. 1990. Before Hillforts. Oxford J. of Archaeol. 9. 323-36. Cunliffe, B. 1993a. Danebury. Batsford/English Heritage. London.

Cunliffe, B. 1993b. Wessex to AD 1000. Longman, London.

Darvill, T. 1998. Prehistoric Britain. Routledge, London.

Dyer, J. 1992. Hillforts of England and Wales. Shire’Archaeology, Bucks.

Fagan, B. 1996. Oxford Companion to Archaeology. OUP; New York.

Palmer, R. 1984. Danebury. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, London.

Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. 2000. Archaeology. Tt6mes & Hudson, London.




1 Comment

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One response to “The Landscape Context of Danebury Hillfort

  1. Brian Smith

    Your first four or five sentences were badly mangled during upload or editing. Just an FYI.

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