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Thursday, April 15, 2010
When the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD they found a long-settled society. But how did these people live, and where? Archaeologists and historians are gradually piecing together the puzzle – and answers may be found at an open field in the middle of Norfolk.
Well, were they? We know that the Iceni were powerful in South Norfolk but were they the same people who built a large and sophisticated hill fort near what is now South Creake, north-west of Fakenham? As they left no written records, we have only educated guesswork and painstaking archaeology to go by. Up until the mid-19th century the ramparts of Bloodgate Hill had been visible for hundreds of years as a local landmark recorded in early maps. But Britains agricultural revolution led to the area being ploughed up and levelled in 1827 as traditional field patterns were broken up. Which is ironic, as an earlier agricultural revolution had probably led to the fort being built in the first place. In the Iron Age, roughly by 800BC in Britain, people were using improved tools. Ditching bronze for iron meant better ploughs could bring marginal land and inferior soils into cultivation. More farming meant more food, which meant more people.
A population explosion also meant more competition for land. Human nature and organisation being what it is, that inevitably led to armed conflict. That was most likely why Bloodgate Hill and other forts in Norfolk were built. We do not know exactly who made the fortifications here and at similar places such as Warham, Holkham, Thetford and Narborough. Were they from the same tribe, or were they in conflict with one another? Warfare would have been a relatively small-scale affair, with bands descending on small farms for cattle and plunder. The fort may have had a number of functions; a sanctuary from raiders, a place to reassure friends and awe enemies, but also may have been a religious site, a place of assembly and a market place. Bloodgate Hill has impressive easterly views over the undulating Norfolk countryside, vital for spotting attackers, as well as being close enough to the sea. From about 800BC until the coming of the Romans it would have been an important local centre.
The manual work of many people perhaps slave labour would have been needed and regular maintenance would have employed a workforce. Aerial photography and a recent geophysical survey has shown up the proportions of the site. Created in a circle, it was 210m (nearly 700ft) in diameter. The outer ditch was steep about 4m deep and would have been lined with wooden ramparts, probably with a walkway for sentries and loops for archers to fire through. Modern archaeology suggests there were up to three towered entrances to the fort. In the centre stood an inner rampart, with its own ditch and wooden wall. This may have been a final defensive position, a town square, a chieftains dwelling or a religious enclave. We can imagine neighbouring farmers and warriors converging there for special events and feasts. The interior may have been full of buildings and pens for horses and cattle brought in for safety during times of unrest. There is little evidence of timescale, though a cattle bone dated to 280BC has been unearthed.
Were not sure if thats significant. Its the name of the road leading from South Creake, and its origin is unknown. A 17th century parish map of South Creake shows the main defences, then known as Burgh Dykes, uncultivated and still preserved. Nor do we know if the site was occupied or defended by the time the Romans arrived. Celtic hill forts may have been successful in warding off hostile British tribes, but against the imperial war machine they fared badly. The Romans were masters of siege warfare, employing sophisticated weaponry and tactics. First century Roman historian Tacitus describes an early attack on an unnamed Iceni fort (possibly Saham Toney in south-west Norfolk) in 50AD, dismissing it as an enclosure surrounded by a crude and rustic bank with a narrow entrance. It quickly fell. In Dorset, the defenders of Maiden Castle, the largest hill fort in Europe and still an impressive site, also defied the Romans. Its defenders were massacred their bones discovered by later archaeologists. Perhaps this early form of military terrorism intimidated the inhabitants of Bloodgate Hill into a tame surrender. Or perhaps many of them marched with Boudica in her famous revolt of 61AD. Sadly, its all speculation. What is certain is that the site was abandoned by the first century AD.
Theres little to see at Bloodgate Hill now. The area became briefly famous during the early 1930s when the landowners were among the first to go over to full agricultural mechanisation the Alley brothers ditching horses and many workers in favour of tractors. The Norfolk Archaeological Trust bought the site in 2003 and immediately conducted a full geophysical survey which showed up many fascinating insights. Aerial photography also demonstrated the contours of the site, including the inner ramparts. There are no plans to disturb the site by excavating it further for the moment, but the artists reconstruction could be used one day as a model in a carefully planned excavation to test theories about the layout of the interior, says the Trust on its website. Perhaps Bloodgate Hill will release more of its secrets in the future?
The site is cared for by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and is open to the public, just off the South Creak to Syderstone road. There are information boards and artists recreations of what the fort may have looked like but visitors will need to employ their imaginations.