Sussex Hill Forts

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There are 25 known prestoric hillfort enclosures in Sussex, many of which have been used for their intended purpose as Sussex is the gateway into Britain from the continent. Sucessive invasions have changed the cultural and military focus of the people in Sussex, sites have sprung up, fallen out of use and then been occupied again at the time of the next invasion. What pallisades that protected these forts are now gone and we are left with the earthen banks and ditches that one surrounded the fort interior. The Neolithic Causewayed Camps are not included here as they are now considered to be ritual enclosures rather than forts, though many of the forts included here show evidence of ritual in their use.

Geographical And Chronological Classification

Most of the hillforts in Sussex take advantage of the high ground of the South Downs ridge and are quite evenly distributed between East Sussex and West Sussex. Most of these are contour forts which take advantage of the natural hill at the chosen location for defence purposes by having the bank and ditch follow the same height contour around the hill. Hillfort construction began during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age and was limited to the northern and southern extremes of the chalk downland. Highdown Hill may appear to be an exception to this but is actually constructed on a chalk prominence cut off from the main bulk of the South Downs by the coastal plain around it. No other hillforts can be found on the coastal plain in any period and no hillforts were built in the weald before the Middle Iron Age. The lack of forts along the coastal plain does not mean the sea was unimportant however, invasions were always a problem and five forts were built along the coastline. The fort at Hastings Castle and East Hill were built where the weald meets the sea and three more, Castle Hill, Seaford Head and Belle Tout were built on the downs where the chalk meets the sea. The latter two are now in the process of disappearing, having already been cut in half by the collapsing chalk cliffs. More may have been lost this way before.

The next phase of hillfort building is the Middle Iron Age. Some of the largest and best known hillforts were built at this time, including Cissbury Ring and Mount Caburn. Also around this time, though it is not certain, the wealden promontory forts first came into use. Dating evidence for these forts is vague and they may be from the Late Iron Age.

There is little activity of the Downs in the Late Iron Age with only Ditchling Beacon being constructed around that time, though evidence even for this is scanty. The population seems to have moved more towards the weald where the promontory forts there came into greater use.

Existing Forts By Date

The Following list of forts is arranged by the date of the enclosure. In many cases such as at Highdown Hill and Mount Caburn there was previous Bronze Age settlement without any form of defence. Similarly, the list gives no indication of site use into subsequent times after construction of the initial fortifications.

Chanctonbury Ring
Ditchling Beacon
Harrow Hill
Harting Beacon
Highdown Hill
Seaford Head
Belle Tout
Mount Caburn
Cissbury Ring
Garden Hill
Hammer Wood
High Rocks
Piper's Copse
Devil's Dyke
Castle Hill
East Hill
Hastings Castle

Site Use

Until the past few decades, the picture regarding hillfort use was quite simple, they were purely defensive. Problems such as the lack of any sort of evidence for habitation in some forts was explained by the intermitant use theory. Either the forts were used seasonally, perhaps for herding purposes, or they were non residential safe havens, only being used when the community housed nearby was under attack. Recently however, evidence has arisen for ritual use for some of the sites.

Ritual Activity

Ritual activity in a site can be deduced by two main aspects. The first is the form of the camp itself, the second is ritual deposits and votive offerings. Of the first, there are not many in Sussex, unless you count the Neolithic Causewayed Camps. Wolstonbury is unique in Sussex in that it has the ditch on the inside and the bank on the outside. Until recently, despite its henge like appearance, the site was thought to be Iron Age, though new dating evidence has shown it is probably Late Bronze Age and encloses the faint remains of two previous enclosures. The site does not appear to be easily defendable due to the configuration of the main ramparts, leading many people to suggest a ritual use for the site and later habitation in the Early Iron Age.

Mount Caburn, a formidable fort on an island of downland near Lewes in East Sussex seems at first glance to be nothing more than a defensive structure for the occupants. While there was settlement on the site in the Late Bronze Age, little evidence has been found of habitation in the Iron Age when the fortifications were built. What was found were over 100 pits containing various bits of refuse which were initially thought to be either rubbish pits or grain storage pits. Recently however, the contents of the pits have been reexamined and it is now possible to suggest that the pits were ritual in nature, the deposits contained within being some sort of votive offering with several of the items showing signs of deliberate breakage in the usual manner of such deposits. The Trundle has similar pit features and also encloses a Neolithic Causwayed Camp, a ritual enclosure in itself, within its boundary. Seemingly ritual deposits have also been found in ditches at Harting Beacon and Harrow Hill, where the mandibles of around 100 oxen were found in one small trench. The name Harrow Hill is said to have come from a Saxon word meaning hilltop shrine, a Pagan Saxon Placename and is also situated next to some flint mining activity. Irons Age Cissbury also encloses Neolithic flint mines with its walls and there have been finds at such mining sites that they were used in part for ritual purposes. Finally, Chanctonbury Ring is looking less and less like a fortified site. No signs of habitation have been found in the excavations though a large pit of possibly ritual deposits has. A later Roman temple was built within the Ring, these are known to have been commonly built on old Iron Age sacred sites.

Standard Entrance

It is interesting to note that where entrances are found in a hillfort, they are almost always contained within an arc from north-east to south-east and when there is a secondary entrance, it is in an arc from west to south-west. The reason for this is not known though it may have something to do with sunrise in the case of the eastern gates and sunset in the western.

Common Folklore

There are certain trends in Folklore that seem to have attached themselves to Hillforts throughout the centuries. The first is Buried Treasure, where certain valuable items are said to be found undernearth the forts, such as Golden Calves at The Trundle and Highdown Hill, a silver coffin and a knight in golden armour at Mount Caburn, Royalist treasure at Torberry hill and unspecified treasure at Cissbury and Chanctonbury Ring, which in the latter case is searched for by ghosts. Some of these treasure are protected by various means. At Cissbury, the treasure is guarded by Serpents, at Torberry, you need a golden plough to dig the treasure up and at The Trundle, the treasure is protected by the Devil or a ghostly calf.

The Devil is also a common theme in folklore relating to the construction of Hillforts. It is said that while digging Devil's Dyke, clods of earth thrown from his spade formed the forts of Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Mount Caburn and Rackham Hill. The fort on Torberry Hill, shaped like a large spoon, is said to have been made when the Devil scalded his lips sipping hot punch from his Punchbowl in Surrey and threw his spoon away.

Bibliography Bibliography
  Hamilton, S & Manley, J : Points of View : Prominent Enclosures..., SAC Vol. 135 (93-112) 1997

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