Hillforts: the example of Broxmouth, Dunbar

Hillforts are often thought of as the typical Iron Age site in southern Scotland and seem to have been at the top of a pyramid pattern of settlements, but can only be understood when viewed against the background of the network of diverse farmsteads scattered across the plain, now visible only as cropmarks, where most of the population would have lived and worked. An exciting new research project by Durham University is currently underway to examine a range of settlements of different types around the base of East Lothian’s most famous hillfort, Traprain Law, which has itself also seen new research excavations (Fraser Hunter, this volume).

Hillforts were rarely built all at once and sometimes have a long history of use and re-use, with different elements of the defences being built at different times. These hilltop settlements were surrounded by sometimes massive ramparts and ditches, protecting one or more timber roundhouses in their interior. These central and prominent places were probably ceremonial and social centres, places where business was conducted and rituals observed. They must have served pragmatic functions too, for example, acting as storage areas for surpluses produced by the tribe and sometimes as places of refuge, where people could drive their livestock in times of danger. They were also symbols of power, the seats of tribal chieftains, often visible for miles around, their ramparts a statement of authority and territorial possession.

Broxmouth Hillfort was identified from the air in 1956 and excavated in advance of its destruction by limestone quarrying in 1977-78. Though a low eminence rather than a dramatic peak, the site proved to have a remarkably complex evolution. There were nine main phases, ranging from sporadic activity around 2000 BC, through a phase of open settlement, followed by successive phases of increasingly robust defensive settlement, and finally, another phase of open settlement as the village expanded beyond the now-abandoned defences. In all the settlement endured through some 800 years, from about 600 BC to the second century AD. The most remarkable thing about Broxmouth was the quantity and quality of the artefacts and the unusually good preservation of the bone (rarely found on prehistoric sites in East Lothian because of the usual soil conditions), although not all phases were equally rich. Finds included: metalworking debris; stone artefacts, including some 80 quernstones and small stone balls; and from the later phases, pottery from cooking vessels; and very many bone and antler artefacts, including diagnostic types and plentiful evidence for bone and antler working on the site. The houses were generally kept clean, but the middens contained a mass of debris: this is why archaeologists love rubbish heaps. Huge quantities of animal bone, fish bone, shells and other environmental evidence testify to the changing agricultural, fishing, hunting and dietary lives of the inhabitants.