Hillforts - Castellieri - Gradine

General History of Hillforts

The term hillfort or hill fort [Italian: castelliere; Istrijanski: kaštelir; Hrvatski: gradina] is commonly used by archeologists to describe fortified enclosures - more specifically, a fortification on a hilltop - that are located to exploit a rise in elevation for defensive advantage. Alternate names:  kaštelir / kasteljer (Istrijanski), casteliere (Istroveneto), castelliere (Italiano), gradina (Hrvatski) and castion.

The best known later examples are from the first millennium B.C. in Europe. In Central Europe, hillforts start with the late Neolithic Period, but are especially common in the Bronze Age Urnfield culture and in the Hallstatt (Early Iron Age) culture of the early Iron Age, and were being built until the Roman conquest in many areas. Julius Caesar described the large late Iron Age hillforts that he encountered during his campaigns as oppida. By this time the larger ones had become more like cities than fortresses and many were assimilated as Roman towns.

By far the largest quantity of material evidence for the Early Iron Age in the Illyrian lands comes from the northern Adriatic and the Istrian peninsula in present-day Croatia, and Slovenia in the southestern Alps.

Usually situated in a prominent and defensible position, the hillfort consists of one or more lines (circular or sub-circular) of stone walls or earthen ramparts, often with external ditches, following the contours of the hill. Their construction often relates to the kind of warfare common in the region in which they lie at the time of their occupation. Many were permanently occupied, although some were temporary refuges in times of trouble.

Types and periods of hillforts vary widely. Some were also settlements while others appear only to have been occupied seasonally or in times of strife. Furthermore, many hillforts, after careful archeological excavation, have been discovered to have been used not for military purposes, but as pens for cattle, horses, or other domesticated animals.

Types (general description):

Beyond the simple definition of hill fort, there is a wide variation in types and periods from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages. Here are some considerations of general appearance and topology, which can be assessed without archaeological excavation:

  • Hilltop Contour - the classic hill fort; an inland location with a hilltop defensive position surrounded by artificial ramparts or steep natural slopes.
    Brent Knoll - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brent_Knoll,
    Mount Ipf - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Ipf.
  • Inland Promontory - an inland defensive position on a ridge or spur with steep slopes on 2 or 3 sides, and artificial ramparts on the level approaches.
    Lambert's Castle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambert's_Castle.
  • Interfluvial - a promontory above the confluence of two rivers, or in the bend of a meander.
    Kelheim (Celtic city of Alcimoennis) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcimoennis
  • Lowland - an inland location without special defensive advantages (except perhaps marshes), but surrounded by artificial ramparts; typical of later settled oppida.
    Maiden Castle, Dorset - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maiden_Castle,_Dorset,
    Stonea Camp - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonea_Camp.
  • Sea Cliff - a semi-circular crescent of ramparts backing on to a straight sea cliff; common on rocky Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland.
    Daw's Castle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daw's_Castle
    Dinas Dinlle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinas_Dinlle Dinas Dinlle, Dún Aengus - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dún_Aengus.
  • Sea Promontory - a linear earthwork across a narrow neck of land leading to a peninsula with steep cliffs to the sea on three sides; common on indented Atlantic coasts, such as Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and west Wales. Examples:
    The Rumps - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rumps,
    Huelgoat - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huelgoat Huelgoat.
  • Sloping Enclosure - smaller earthwork on gently sloping hillsides; not significant defensive position.
    Trendle Ring - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trendle_Ring,
    Plainsfield Camp - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plainsfield_Camp Plainsfield Camp.
  • > 20 hectares: very large enclosures, too diffuse to defend, probably used for domesticated animals.
  • 1 - 20 hectares: defended areas large enough to support permanent tribal settlement.
  • < 1 hectare: small enclosures, more likely to be individual farmsteads or animal pens.
Ramparts, walls and ditches
  • Univallate - a single circuit of ramparts for enclosure and defence.
    Solsbury Hill - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solsbury_Hill.
  • Multivallate - more than one layer of defensive earthworks, outer works might not be complete circuits, but defend the weakest approaches; typically the inner circuit is original, with outer circuits added later.
    Cadbury Castle, Somerset - href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadbury_Castle,_Somerset.
  • Simple opening - might indicate an enclosure, rather than a defended position; sometimes the main ramparts may turn inward or outward, and be widened and heightened to control the entrance. Example:
    Dowsborough - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowsborough.
  • Linear holloway - straight parallel pair of ramparts dominating the entrance; projecting either inward, outward, or occasionally overlapped along the main rampart.
    Norton Camp - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norton_Camp.
  • Complex - multiple overlapping outer works; staggered or interleaved multivallate ramparts; zig-zag entrance way, sling platforms and well planned lines of fire.
    Maiden Castle, Dorset - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maiden_Castle,_Dorset.

Archaeological excavation reveals more about the dates of occupation and modes of use, and there are some typical features.


Ramparts and ditches
  • Original depths and profiles of ditches.
  • Rampart construction:
    Murus gallicus - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murus_gallicus,
    Pfostenschlitzmauer - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfostenschlitzmauer.
  • Guardhouses and defended entrances.
Settlement and occupation
  • Raised platforms, Roundhouses, Longhouses.
  • Post holes for rectangular granary huts.
  • Pits for food storage, Souterrain, Fogou.
  • Pottery
  • Coins, jewellery and hoards.
Temples and peacetime burials
  • Platforms and temple foundations.
  • Graves and offerings
  • Weapons: sling-shot, shields, armour, swords, axes, spears, arrows.
  • Sieges and conquest: ballista bolts, ash layers, vitrified stones, burnt post holes.
  • Wartime burials: typically outside the ramparts:
    • Contemporary individual burials by local inhabitants.
    • Massed grave pits dug by a conquering army.

Hillforts were frequently occupied by conquering armies, but on other occasions the forts were destroyed, the local people forcibly evicted, and the forts left derelict. For example, Solsbury Hill was sacked and deserted during the Belgic invasions of southern Britain in the first century BC. Abandoned forts were sometimes reoccupied and refortified under renewed threat of foreign invasion, such as the Dukes' Wars in Lithuania, and the successive invasions of Britain by Romans, Saxons and Vikings.

Hillforts in Istria and Slovenia


  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archeology
  • American journal of archaeology, Volume 1, Archaeological Institute of America, 1885, p. 248-9
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillfort
  • John Wilkes, The Illyrians, Blackwell Publishing, 1995
  • http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Hillfort
  • The Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, Guide III (Pula 1986) Pula 3000, Libar od Grozda (Pula 1997)
  • Trsat - http://www.grad-rijeka.hr/default.asp?ru=304&sid=&akcija=&jezik=22

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Created: Monday, November 06, 2006; Last Updated: Thursday, 23 July 2015
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