From the air
Many hidden archaeological sites will reveal themselves if you can get a birds eye view. Even if an archaeological site has been buried and ploughed over for thousands of years, the soil above it will grow differently to the surrounding soil. At particular times of day, or during certain weather events, these subterranean sites will reveal themselves – but only if viewed from an aeroplane! The recent European heatwave revealed a number of previously unknown sites, such as a group of Neolithic monuments near the city of Milton Keynes, thought to be over 5000 years old.
There is not unanimous agreement as to what went on in these large areas enclosed by long ditches and causeways. Dating back to 4000 BC (around the same time as long barrows), these sites lack housing or cooking debris, so they cannot have been defensive settlements. Instead it is thought that they might have been places to corral livestock, or maybe vast ritual arenas for large religious gatherings, or even places of political negotiation.
There are eighty known sites in Britain. Ditches can be up to three meters deep, and were sometimes mysteriously refilled immediately after they were dug. Most of these ancient sites are only visible from the air, and if there is a visible contour at ground level, the site more likely dates from the later Iron Age. The most well-known survivor is Windmill Hill and Wiltshire, which dates back well over 5000 years.
Hillforts are large man-made earth banks surrounded by ditches, used for defensive purposes by Iron Age warrior tribes. As tribal conflict increased during this period, these physical defences became more elaborate. There are around 3000 known hillforts in Britain alone. Some of the more complex constructions, dating from the ‘golden age’ of defensive construction between 400 and 100 BC, contain up to six rings of defense and are big enough to house an entire community.
Appreciating the sophistication of these constructions, and the massive amount of labour required to build them, requires a bit of imagination from the landscape spotter. The only elements now visible are the earth foundations: deep, steep ditches and large earth banks. But these man-made earthworks proved a considerable deterrent to attack. One of the most famous hillforts is Cadbury Castle in Somerset – alleged to be the location of King Arthur’s Camelot.
Where to find a hillfort?
The first and most obvious requirement for a hillfort is hills. You won’t find many in the flatter parts of the British Isles. The most elaborate hillforts are in the south west of England, among the hilly regions along the Welsh border. Less sophisticated hillforts are found along the Irish Sea coast and also as far north as southern Scotland. The paucity of hillforts in other parts of Britain is not only due to the lack of hills: they are also historically the most densely settled parts of the countryside, and thousands of years and farming and development have destroyed much of the ancient landscape.
If you think you’ve spotted a hillfort, look for three things:
- Entranceways: These almost always face east, mostly likely because of ancient spiritual beliefs regarding the sun.
- Earthworks: How deep are the ditches? Do they follow the shape of the hill?
- Defensibility: How well could the site be defended? Is it a good vantage point to survey the surrounding countryside?
A castle, a hill, or both?
Castles are a relatively modern invention in Britain, especially compared with hillforts and causewayed camps. Most were built after the Norman invasion in 1066, and many stone castles survive today. Hundreds of others, especially those made of timber, are discernible only by the earthworks left behind: perfect for landscape spotters!
These types of castles are split into two categories. Ringwork castles have similar defences to hillforts: earthen banks, sometimes called ramparts, surrounding the structure. The second type of castle was brought by the Normans: the motte castle. These simple, rectangular structurees (donjons) were built atop a man-made earthen mound, built using the earth excavated from a ditch or moat that surrounded the castle.
Where to find an earthwork castle?
Earthwork castles can be hard to spot, and require some imagination when you do spot one. They can look more like picnic spots that the sites of bloody medieval battles. Hills would have been steeper and ditches deeper. Ramparts would have been topped with protective timber palisades. Innocuous as they may seem, their construction helped the Normans quickly gain control over most of England.
Earthwork castles can be found all over Britain. Look for the following:
- Ramparts: Are there banks and ditches?
- Location: Where is the castle situated among the surrounding countryside? Is this an important strategic point?
You might have spotted a hill, and determined that it is man-made. But what was it? It could be a burial mound, or a motte castle, a windmill, or even a gun mount from the 17th century. Yet another possibility is that is was a ‘moot’ – an ancient Saxon sacred site used for inter-tribal meetings and agreements. If the hill has a flat top, then there is every possibility that it was used for moots. The top was flattened so chiefs and nobles could be seated for the meeting.
What looks like a simple hole or dimple in the earth might in fact be an ancient mining site. Beginning in the Bronze Age, ancient Britons began digging in the ground for precious metals and stones. The two materials most sought after were flint for blades and hard rocks used to great highly sought-after axe-heads. Much of this was mined from deep caves. The best place for visitors to get a sense of the ancient mining tunnels is at the Great Orme mines in North Wales.
Most of the more elaborate mining infrastructure dates from the eighteenth century Agricultural Revolution. Limestone and chalk was mined to produce lime, which improved soil quality during the Napoleonic Wars. Many large lime kilns survive from the time. Smaller chalk-wells are more difficult to spot, but they are sometimes visible in depressions along the outer boundaries of fields, or after periods of heavy rain.
You might think that a simple pond is just a naturally occurring feature of the landscape. Think again! Ancient societies sometimes constructed ponds to provide a steady supply of water for people and their animals. In the South Downs, ancient Britons also created dew ponds to take advantage of the naturally free-draining high ground. Fishponds were popular in the medieval period, as meat was prohibited by the church on Fridays (fish and birds were exempted). It can be difficult to determine whether a pond is natural or artificial, but one way is to see if it is lined with clay. Clay was often used to make ponds deeper and more water-retentive.
Small group tours for mature-aged and senior travellers
Odyssey Traveller is famous for our small groups, and we average eight participants per tour. Our maximum group size is up to 14 people, which ensures quality, flexibility and care that is tailored to our clients. We specialise in small group tours for the senior traveller who is seeking adventure or is curious about the world we live in. Typically, our clients begin travelling with us from their mid 50’s onward. But be prepared to meet fellow travellers in their 80s and beyond! Both couples and solo travellers are very welcome on our tours.
At Odyssey, we are passionate about stories. Our tours are designed around what makes places unique, and we approach history from interesting and informed angles.
Our Historic Ireland tour begins in Dublin and then travels clockwise around Ireland to finish in Northern Ireland’s city of Belfast. We will enjoy a guided city tour of Dublin with highlights including St Patrick’s Cathedral, amazing quaint villages, green hills, and other hidden gems. We will see the Cliffs of Moher, Giant’s Causeway, and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On this tour to Ireland, we will view the ancient Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s most treasured works, and go on a walking tour of Tara, site of the High Kings of Ireland. This tour also includes an overnight stay at Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, where the Gaelic language and Irish traditions live on in daily life.
Roam the Scottish Highlands and explore Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, or enjoy a vacation in London to view Trafalgar Square and St Paul’s Cathedral.
If you would like to visit ancient rural Britain, Odyssey has a number of tours that might take your fancy. Our Roaming Rural Britain Tour and our Ireland and Lake District Walking Tour both take you on some of the best walks the British Isles have to offer, then there is also the Wainwright Walking program, coast to coast through the Lake district, Yorkshire and the Cleveland way. For an ancient historical focus, try our Prehistoric Britain Tour, which takes you to some of the most important prehistoric sites in the Western world.
You can view more tours of Britain.
Originally published August 20, 2018.
Updated on October 8, 2019. Refreshed October 4th 2021.