The complex contours of Ham Hill – the steep-sided escarpment that looms high above the A303 near Stoke-Sub-Hamdon in Somerset – have always evoked impressions of a rich and busy ancient past, but now archaeologists can reveal that the ridge once played host to the largest Iron Age fort in Britain.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge have been studying the massive defensive works, which cover more than 80 hectares, for the past three years in an attempt to understand more about their function, and how such a large structure was defended by the local population.
Now the final round of excavations at Ham Hill have revealed more about how the fort was developed by its defenders in response to the Roman invasion.
The university team has concentrated on the final phase of construction, which occurred towards the end of the Iron Age and was probably a response to the fact that Roman legions were marching north and west from the English Channel. Despite the scale of fortifications, archaeologists now believe the place was attacked and that the invaders did breach the defences.
"There is obvious evidence of violence and assault in the ramparts – researchers found de-fleshed and chopped-up human remains dating back to the time of the Roman Conquest," a spokesman from the university told the Western Morning News.
"A wide variety of tools and weapons have been unearthed, including a bronze dagger and an iron ballista bolt," she said, adding that the final ramparts built at Ham Hill consisted of box-revetted stone defences situated on top of previously built, three to four metre-high earthen banks."
However, previous to the Roman threat, the massive ramparts up on Ham Hill may have been built for non-military purposes...
"The existence of these structures does not mean that people in the Iron Age lived in a constant state of warfare," said the expert.
"Although Ham Hill was clearly prepared to try and repulse attackers, it was not simply a military hill fort. Instead, these ramparts may have been more symbolic than practical – an emblem of defence – the building of which would have helped to foster community spirit and create a collective identity, clearly delineating 'us' and 'them'."
It also appears that major works were being completed on the hill over many centuries. Archaeologists believe that the hill-top area was inhabited from at least the Neolithic period.
"A particularly interesting find has been the Middle Bronze Age ditches used to create a system of rectilinear fields and indicating that Ham Hill was fully established as a distinct and significant place by 1500 BC," said the university spokesman.
The three summers of excavations have provided many important discoveries, such as that of the first "ham stone" house – an Iron Age house built from pieces of local stone.
"This discovery proved that ham stone was used by builders prior to Roman occupation, and that the Romans were not the first to quarry the site," commented an expert. "Other structures found include roundhouses and grain storage pits, dating from the second to first centuries BC."
Early Roman pottery and metalwork have also been discovered alongside military items from the period, suggesting that legions garrisoned Ham Hill when they first made inroads into the Westcountry.
An open day will be held at the excavations on Saturday, September 7. For details see hamhillfort.info, or email Hayley Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a private group tour.