This article appeared on the BBC News website on 22 June 2017.
For the first time, scientists have mapped the locations and details of all ancient hill forts in the UK and Ireland in an online database. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford and University College Cork have spent five years mapping the 4,147 sites – ranging from well-preserved forts to those where only crop marks are left.
Information on all the hill forts has been collated onto a website that will be freely accessible to the public so they can discover details of the ancient sites they see in the countryside. Prof Gary Lock, from the University of Oxford, said it was important the online database was freely available to researchers and others, such as heritage managers, and would provide the baseline for future research on hill forts. He added: “We hope it will encourage people to visit some incredible hill forts that they may never have known were right under their feet.”
Of the 4,147 sites, nearly 40% are in Scotland, with 408 in the Scottish Borders alone. In England, Northumberland leads the way with 271 hill forts, while in the Republic of Ireland, Mayo and Cork each have more than 70 sites. In Wales, Powys is the county with the most hill forts, with 147, and in Northern Ireland, Antrim has the most with 15.
Hill forts were mostly built during the Iron Age, with the oldest dating to around 1000 BC and the most recent to 700 AD, and had numerous functions, some of which have not been fully discovered. Despite the name, not all hill forts are on hills, and not all are forts, the experts said. Excavations show many were used predominantly as regional gathering spots for festivals and trade, and some are on low-lying land.
The research team was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. About 100 members of the public also collected data about the hill forts they visited, identifying and recording their characteristics, which were then analysed by the team.
The University of Edinburgh’s Prof Ian Ralston, who co-led the project, said: “Standing on a windswept hill fort with dramatic views across the countryside, you really feel like you’re fully immersed in history”.
Text BBC News and Alun Harvey