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The Breiddin


The Bereiddin Hills

The Breiddin hillfort, one of the largest in the region, occupies the ridge of igneous rock that forms the western side of the distinctive block of hills emerging from the Severn valley south of Oswestry and west of Shrewsbury. Excavations were carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s in advance of quarrying, yet after nearly 40 years the site remains one of the key sites in the Welsh borderland, with a long sequence of activity closely dated by a string of radiocarbon dates.

Plan of four-post structures and round houses revealed by excavation

Excavations were carried out in three distinct areas at the southern end of the hillfort: firstly, a stretch of the inner hillfort defences; secondly, an area of flatter ground halfway up towards the summit; and thirdly, a boggy area known as Buckbean Pond closer to the top of the hill. Each of these different areas has a slightly different story to tell about the hillfort and the people that lived there.

A sizeable area of the hillfort defences were excavated which showed that the Iron Age rampart was a simple bank of stone partly quarried from rock outcrops on the uphill side. This helped to create a narrow, sheltered zone just behind the bank which revealed intensive signs of activity. Two quite different types of building structures – roundhouses and four-posters – had been crammed into this space, both of which are characteristic of Iron Age sites in the region and elsewhere in Britain. The first were roundhouses with walls of stakes and larger posts at the doorways, mostly about 8–9 metres in diameter. Some had central hearths and had probably been lived in, but others may have been workshops or storage buildings. The second were four-poster structures, about 2–3 metres across. They had been built with massive posts up to half a metre across at each corner and may represent buildings for storing grain and other dry goods with raised floors. The Iron Age rampart and these different building types were shown to date to the period between about 700–0 BC, the buildings showing clear evidence of having been built, repaired and replaced over a number of generations.

The excavated remains of the later Bronze Age rampart showing as a double line of post holes underneath the Iron Age defences

Socketed bronze axe

One of the most important results of the rampart excavations, however, was the discovery of a double row of postholes below the Iron Age rampart, representing a later Bronze Age line of defence. Finds associated with this period of occupation include various bronze tools and weapons such as a socketed axe, a socketed hammer, socketed spearhead, sword handle as well as ornaments such as dress pins. This period of occupation has been shown to date to between about 1000–800 BC. The area excavated further up the hill formed a fairly level area enclosed by less hospitable rocky outcrops, unsuited to occupation. This sheltered area revealed intensive settlement activity similar to that found behind the inner rampart, with later Bronze Age buildings associated with bronze metalworking activity succeeded by a pattern of Iron Age roundhouses and four-posters. This area shows that only the flatter and less exposed areas in the interior of the hillfort would have been inhabited, with rocky outcrops in effect dividing the interior of the hillfort into a number of quite distinct ‘communities’.

A wooden bowl from the Buckbean Pond excavation

The excavation of Buckbean Pond closer to the summit of the hill provided a different insight into the lifestyle and economy of the hillfort’s inhabitants. Fortuitously, a boggy area had formed here within a natural hollow in the hill where peat and mud had accumulated – providing ideal conditions for the preservation of organic remains. A sequence of pollen and other plant remains from these deposits provides evidence about the vegetation history of the hill and the impact of early man upon the environment. A large pit had been dug into the bottom of the pond in the Iron Age, in the period between about 400–200 BC, possibly as a source of clay for plastering onto roundhouse walls inside the hillfort. Various wooden artefacts of a kind rarely found elsewhere had collected in the muddy sediments in the pit as it gradually filled up. These includes a wooden bowls, a large mallet, a pestle, twisted withies forming a kind of rope, and an intriguing wooden sword that may either have been used in weaving or possibly as a child’s toy.

We have learnt a good deal, but many important questions remain unanswered. Why was the hillfort built? Was it a tribal centre and how many people lived there? Did it accommodate the whole of the local population or was it only occupied by a chieftain and his retinue? Did people live in the hillfort throughout the year or only a certain seasons? Was it continuously occupied from the later Bronze Age and throughout the Iron Age, or did people only resort to it at times of war? Did the inhabitants graze herds of animals and grow crops of corn, and if so how extensive were the lands that they farmed? How similar was its history to other hillforts in the region, such as Old Oswestry?

The results of the excavations at the Breiddin are presented in a volume entitled The Breiddin hillfort – a later prehistoric settlement in the Welsh Marches, published by the Council for British Archaeology, which is now freely available online at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/cbaresrep/pdf/076/076tl001.pdf.


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