The Iron Age in Devon

The Iron Age in Devon

The Iron age produced most, if not all, of the earthwork forts which still crown hill-tops and clif1s in the Devon landscape. Their construction seems to have begun in the third century BC, in response to further waves of invasion, and to have continued with new building or strengthening for two hundred years. Few sites have yet been properly excavated, and the events of this period are at present less clear than, for example, in Dorset. Evidence suggests that successive invaders crossed the sea from Brittany, established themselves at first near the estuaries of the south coast, and then penetrated inland, either building forts themselves or causing the previous inhabitants to do so for protection. The earliest examples show a single line of rampart and ditch, either cutting off the neck of a headland (‘promon­tory fort’) or following the contour of a hill-top. The ramparts were often revetted with stone or turf or timber, to give a more perpendicular profile than is seen today. One such, Cranbrook above the upper Teign, was never finished, possibly because those building it were attacked and overwhelmed before they could do so.

Later forts were built or remodelled with two or more lines of rampart, following the introduction of sling-warfare from Brittany in the first century BC, and the outstanding example in Devon is Hembury near Honiton. This crowns a bold promontory with close-set double or triple lines, designed not for successive defence but to keep attackers at a distance where the defenders, shooting downhill, could reach them without being hit in return. Digging here has revealed stocks of sling-pebbles, signs of a stockade on the inner rampart, and timber platforms for slingers at the gates. This is one of a group in the south-east of the county, possibly built to resist the warlike Durotriges of Dorset, but equally possibly taken over and reconstructed by them— since Duro­trigan pottery has been found in the later layers.

A peculiar type of defended settlement, found only in Devon and Cornwall, appeared in the first century BC. These were built on a slope rather than a hill-top, and had widely spaced concentric en­closures. One such, at Milber near Newton Abbot, has an almost rectangular centre, presumably for habitation. Two outer enclosures were probably for stock, while a larger but indefensible one may have been for cultivation. At Clovelly Dykes in North Devon is a similar example, probably representing a separate invasion by the same people by way of the Bristol Channel.

By no means all the Iron Age population lived in or near the forts, though their distribution on the map may be some guide to the most populated parts of the country at the time. The commonest type of settlement was probably in undefended farmsteads, and remained so throughout the Roman period; but these, unlike the forts, are difficult to trace. Most Iron Age farming in Devon was still mainly pastoral rather than arable, and many small ring-works may have served as cattle-enclosures rather than as defences.

The climate of the Iron Age was, comparatively cool and wet, making the higher ground previously used by Bronze Age people no longer habitable, while the valley soils had not yet been opened up by clearance and drainage. Most of the Iron Age popu­lation seems to have lived somewhere near the 500-foot (150-metre) contour.

The Dumnonii of Devon (and Cornwall) were not as advanced as their neighbours in Dorset and Somerset, nor as most other contemporary tribes of lowland Britain. They struck no coins, and for internal exchange seem to have relied on iron currency-bars, a hoard of which has been found at Holne Chase near Ashburton. These, whose value lay in the fact that they could be converted by any smith into implements or weapons, were made in several standard sizes. Coins of Gaulish and of other British peoples however have been found at Mount Batten (Plymouth), showing that some overseas trad­ing existed long before the coming of the Romans.

Besides the use of the rivers, inland movement was possible along the ridgeways, which followed  watersheds, avoiding valley forests and swamps.  These tracks had been in use since early Bronze Age times, and ran close to many hill-forts. Some remain in use as roads today, and one forms a long stretch of the county border on Exmoor.