The finding of a potentially large mass burial is changing interpretations of the function of hill forts in Britain. Arhcaeologists have just begun excavations on the Iron Age hill for at Fin Cop, which dates within 440BCE to 390BCE. Waddington, the head archaeologist at the site argues that “there has been an almost accepted assumption amongst many archaeologists that hill forts functioned as displays of power, prestige and status and that warfare in the British Iron Age is largely invisible”. By carefully excavating the site, the archaeologists are able to create better interpretations about the actual construction and use of the hill fort. Based on the way that it was constructed, Waddington argues that “the hurriedly constructed fort was evidently intended as a defensive work in response to a very real threat”. However, what changes interpretations about the site most was the discovery of a mass burial of only women and children.
While the details of this burial are scant at the moment, but we do know that the nine individuals that have been found so far are all women and sub-adults. The burial pit was filled in using the defensive wall of the hill fort. Cause of death for most individuals is unknown, but no signs of trauma have been found so far. Current speculation is pointing towards flesh wounds from warfare, which the hurried construction of the fort points to, suffocation, although I do not know what evidence there is for this, or disease, which is possible but again- there is no evidence. Two burials in particular have been singled out. The first belongs to a pregnant woman who was crushed under a stone wall, and the second is of a teenage boy ‘huddled’ at the bottom of the pit.
Hill forts were used from about 2000 BCE to the Roman Age in Britain. Over 2000 of these mounds have been found through the UK, showing their high popularity from the Bronze through the Iron Age. Evidence of burials from this period is fairly lacking, so making interpretations of the newly discovered Fin Cop hill fort burials becomes even more problematic. Most skeletons that have been found from the Iron Age are located in ditches, pits, and postholes, suggesting a fairly domestic burial. Anderson notes that “The Arras culture of Yorkshire consists of large cemeteries with graves under mounds surrounded by rectangular ditched enclosures.” This middle Iron Age hill fort burial appears similar to the Fin Cop burial (at least by initial description). So maybe what we’re seeing is normal burial practices for this region and time period, and not evidence of warfare.
In breaking down the various articles discussing Fin Cop hill fort, there are a number of things to be wary about in the interpretations. First of all, very little of the site has actually been excavated. Archaeologists are arguing that warfare befell the site based on fast construction of the fort and presence of a mass burial of only women and children. However given the small percent of the site that is actually excavated, we need to hold back interpretations. They argue that there are potentially hundreds of skeletons at the site- the finding of which could skew the sex and age bias drastically. Segregated burials are rare, so at the moment it is more likely that the sample is biased and the mass grave itself will reveal more males and adults in future findings. Also, the supposed hurried construction of the walls may be only this one section.
It will be interesting to watch interpretations change as more of the site becomes unearthed. While the finding of a mass grave potentially due to warfare changes interpretations, everyday new evidence becomes available and these conclusions are updated. It will be interesting to see what the final reconstruction of the hill fort and its burial appear like, whether it follows the common hill fort construction or was indeed a quick construction in response to war.
BBC. 2011. Mass burial suggests massacre at Iron Age hill fort. British Broadcasting Channel News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13082240
Wainwright. 2011. Who killed the hill fort nine? Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/apr/18/iron-age-hill-fort-graves-peak-district?INTCMP=SRCH
The Star. 2011. Mass grave discovered at ancient hill fort. The Star http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/local/mass_grave_discovered_at_ancient_peaks_fort_1_3301281
British Museum. 2009. Burial and funeral in the Iron Age. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/b/burial_rites,_iron_age_britain.aspx
Anderson. 2007. Iron Age Burials. Spoilheap. http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burintr.htm#ia