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Subject: Re: Hillforts and Settlement
From: Raimund KARL <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:CELTIC-L - The Celtic Culture List.
Date:Sun, 14 Jul 2002 17:01:07 +0200

text/plain (229 lines)

Hi Dave,

46FORTIN schrieb:
> Apologies for the delay in responding.  I wanted to set a bit more time aside
> to reply.

No problem, fine by me!
> In working on the chapter of my dissertation in which I hope to recreate the
> historical landscape primarily from place-name evidence augmented by other
> non-documentary sources, I am pretty much following the work of Dr. Colin
> Thomas of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Ulster,
> Coleraine.  Dr. Thomas has written a number of articles on this sort of thing,
> particularly with respect to medieval Merioneth, and he has a chapter in the
> _History of Merioneth_ vol. 2 (Cardiff, 2001).  However, even though we are
> talking about Iron Age hillforts, I am not taking your objections to things
> like pollen count evidence lightly.

I'll see if I can find it to have a look at it...
> This is a very interesting position, and, before I through some studies at
> you, let me do a few quotes to see what you think:
> E.G. Bowen, "The Settlement Pattern of Wales," in J.A. Steers, ed. _Field
> Studies in the British Isles_ (London, 1964), pp. 279-93.  From pg. 279:
> (discussing Iron Age settlements in Wales) "These people settled in massive
> hill forts, the remains of which are still to be seen over much of the Welsh
> countryside.  We are not quite certain whether the whole community dwelt in
> these fortified enclosures or whether they had smaller settlements on the
> valley sides, and gathered into the tribal citadels only in times of danger.
> In any case, we are certain that their economy was dominantly pastoral. with
> cattle, sheep and goats.  They practised only a little agriculture (it would
> better be called gardening), and hunting in the forested valleys below their
> settlements was a further important element in their economy."

Extremely unlikely, in my opinion. 
And the simplest reason for it is that the term used for the plough in
the Celtic languages, celt. *aratro, see OIr. arathar, MCymr. arader,
MBret. ararz, Corn. aradar, also Lat. aratrum, Gr. áratron, all are
derived from the term for the pre-Roman, wheelless plough or "ard" as it
is called today in German, in contrast to the wheeled plough from
Raetian plovum or ploum or Lat. carruca, probably from the Gaulish
wheeled plough.
In all likelihood, the Romans would have imported the carruca or the
plovum to Wales, rather than the aratrum, which was the poor man's
plough in the imperial period, the one used by those who had always used
the simple native tool rather than the good "Roman" villa-economy
Another reason is the similarity between Irish and Welsh co-ploughing
contracts and practices (OIr. comar, OCymr. cyfar, from Celt
*kom-arje/o). Co-ploughing as such a contractual arrangement doesn't
exist in Roman law as far as I'm informed, and as such, it can't be a
borrowing into Welsh and Irish law, and as the terms are cognates, it is
unlikely that it is a post common-Celtic practice (and this makes sense
from the continental archaeological record as well, where we know of
settlements with herds of no more than 3-4 cattle, most of which were
cows, and definitly not sufficent oxen to plough the fields, but where
we know that agriculture must have played a significant role in
As such, late Iron Age Wales with a pure pastoral economy, in fact IA
Wales without a strong agricultural element, becomes almost
unimagineable. The Iron Age Welsh must in all likeliness have had an
agropastoral economy - with a significant agricultural sector.
That Welsh IA economy was mostly pastoral might be assumed if only early
excavation records have been taken as "evidence", and have been
considerably misinterpreted in the way that animal bones of course are
much better preserved than grain, and thus the assumption that people
were basing their economy mostly on pastoralism is one seemingly "backed
up" by archaeological evidence (i.e. animal bones found in large
quantities), which however does not stand up to source criticism of any
quality (and more modern excavation techniques as well, at least
> I. Hodder, "The Human Geography of Roman Britain," in R.A. Dodgshon and R.A.
> Butlin, eds., _An Historical Geography of England and Wales_ (London, 1978),
> pp. 29-55, states on pg. 34 "The relative lack of large hill forts in the Iron
> Age in south Wales suggests an absence of strongly centralized government.

Well, that's something that Hodder obviously wrote in his processual
phase. Nowadays, he would be a lot more careful with such statements (at
least I hope he would).

> IN
> the north of Wales, large stone-walled hill forts do occur enclosing sizable
> communities of perhaps 100 to 400 people living in circular stone-walled huts.
>  Whether these forts indicate a greater degree of centralization than in the
> south of Wales is unclear since the forts may have been used simply as summer
> refuges in a transhumant economy, the lowlands containing the winter farms."

In other words: Few have been excavated and we simply can't say much
about the topic at all.
> In the same volume, G.R.J. Jones outlines his hypothesis that the hill forts
> were later equivalent to the same locales as the llysoedd of later British
> kingdoms.  He stresses a mixed agricultural economy, utilizng an
> infield-outfield system.

Much more likely!
> Wendy Davies echoes G.R.J. Jones in _Early Medieval Wales_ (Leicester, 1982),
> that mixed agriculture in the hill settlements was probably the norm, but that
> the evidence has yet to be conclusive, despite archaeological findings of
> large numbers of huts in the hill forts themselves.
> (and we haven't even begun to get around to talking about the number of
> persons per hut or whether a hut represents a nuclear family or extended
> family, but let's save that for another day).

The main problem with all of this is that a) excavations are rare anyway
and b) even if something is excavated, results rarely are conclusive
unless one finds masses of farming equipment (extremely rare finds, in
As such, interpreting such settlements always primarily depends upon
"assumptions" of how the respective society was organised in the first
place, limited by such data as if there is arrable soil anywhere near
the sites in question or not, and if structures at any given site are
most likely permanent or only temporary ones. But that's a matter of
debate more often than not, too, so most often it is simply a matter of
how you imagine the society in the first place. And the elder the
literature is you look at, the more likely it is that this assumption is
of primitive pre-Roman barbarians that mostly relied on hunting and
fishing for their survival and had not the slightest idea of how to
survive in their environment.
> OK.  So it looks like the writers of the 1960's still thought of the hill fort
> in Wales as representing a primarily pastroal economy and later authors were
> open to the possiblity of more mixed agriculture.  I don't have anything later
> than W. Davies at hand, so perhaps you can fill in the historiography.

No, I don't have anything at hand at the moment, but I would assume that
the tendency since has been even more towards mixed farming economy. 
> As for those studies re: nucleated settlement and pastoral agriculture.  Here
> are some works that might be worth looking at:
> Angus Winchester.  _The Harvest of the Hills: Rural Life in Northern England
> and the Scottish Borders, 1400-1700 (Edinburgh, 2001).  See esp. pp. 13-18.
> Colin Thomas, "Rural Society, Settlement, Economy and Landscape," in J.
> Beverley Smith and Ll. Beverley Smith, eds., _The History of Merioneth_ vol. 2
> (Cardiff, 2001), pp. 168-224.  See esp. pp.175-78 and the respective notes.

I'll see if I can find any one of those here in NLW somewhen next week
and see if I can comment on them.

> I could run through some other ones, but, since it's getting on in the
> evening, perhaps the best thing that can be said has been said already by
> George Homans _English Villages of the Thirteenth Century_ (London, 1941) on
> pg. 28 he warns against finding any one factor in determing the character of
> the landscape.

Always a good warning. And probably the best one can say anyway.
> >but I see absolutely no archaeological or other
> >reason to assume that actual pastoralism, in contrast to agropastoralism
> >consisting of a strong farming economy combined with transhumance
> >pastoralism, was of any significance anywhere in western Europe since,
> >at latest, the Bronze Age.
> Perhaps we are at cross ends here.  When I think of a pastoral economy, I do
> not disallow for the possiblity or probability of arrable agriculture taking
> place on some scale, nor do I think that Jones Pierce would have either.  The
> question is one of degree.  Are we dealing with a primarily pastoral society
> engaging in some arable farming, or are we talking about something that is
> more half-and-half?

Well, I assume the minimum amount of arrable farming in all west
European societies since the Bronze Age at least (and in fact, in most
cases since the early neolithic) in comparison to pastoralism has always
made up at least 50% of the total subsistence economy, except for very
short periods of time in very, very remote areas, which, then, however,
were heavily dependent on imported grain. The typical european diet
since the first records is bread (or broth), onions or other vegetables,
plus some dairy produce, most often cheese or fresh milk, and meat as an
add-on for the better off or at feast days. This even holds true for the
scottish highlands until the clearances. 
> Absolutely true.  It's a very tricky issue that we are discussing, and for
> every fertile set of hills that we can think of, we can probably come up with
> a set of historically barren hillsides, all within close proximity. 


> This
> reminds me of some aerial photos of hillsides showing where medieval
> agriculturalists attempted to cultivate marginal land during the pre-plague
> era due to population pressure and land hunger.  Such lands were never
> cultivated again, and for good reason.

And on the other hand it reminds me of farmers on the Irish Arran Isles,
which farm in a place where they have to create their fields by
producing soil by erecting small walled rectangles and putting seaweed
mixed with sand within them to create the soil they can use a generation
It of course always depends on how densely settled an area already is,
and what land is still unclaimed for. But as long as arable soil is
available, it is used, at least in west European prehistory since the
neolithic. There may be one or the other rare exception, but I don't
think Iron Age Wales was one of them... ;-)
> Which means that perhaps we are back to the point that every hill fort is
> diferent and that local issues (soil type, climate, drainage, forest
> management, customs, etc.) have to be taken into account.

Yes, and a society that is already very much able to transfer goods from
one place where they exist in abundance to another place where they are

All the best,


Mag.phil. Raimund KARL 
Österreich: <mailto:[log in to unmask]>
Lektor für kulturwissenschaftliche Keltologie
Univ.Wien, Inst.f.Alte Geschichte, A-1010 Wien, Dr. Karl Lueger Ring 1
United Kingdom: <mailto:[log in to unmask]>
Research fellow (European Archaeology)
Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, 
Aberystwyth, Ceredigion SY23 3HH; ffôn: (+44 781) 6464861

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