When in Devon last month, I briefly visited an ancient monument that is an old favourite of mine: Hembury Hillfort. This is a wooded hill-top on the south-east edge of Dartmoor above the River Dart and close to Ashburton. This landscape is managed by the National Trust as a part of Holne Woods.
Note: this is not to be confused with the east Devon ‘Hembury’ which is a very impressive ancient monument in its own right: a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and Iron Age hillfort.
Having walked from the small roadside car park through the woods along the ridge from the hillfort, I then decided not to enter into the monument straight away. Instead, I perambulated the earthworks clockwise inside the ditch before walking around the inside of the hillfort. Finally, I explored the much denuded Norman motte marking the highest point of the site just within the Iron Age earthworks. I enjoyed my walk through the early spring landscape of flowering bushes and thorns but still-bare trees in the early morning, watching chats and thrushes tweet and dart and listening to an elusive but noisy woodpecker.
What of Hembury’s archaeology? Unlike the east Devon Hembury, the south Devon Hembury has received no modern and recorded excavations. Hence, all the information on the heritage board is informed speculation. What I mean by this is that Hembury hillfort is only ‘Iron Age’ in morphological comparison with many other hillforts in the South-West. Likewise, the motte-and-bailey castle is ‘Norman’ by comparison, not from evidence gleaned from the site itself, but from excavations and surveys of similar monuments across Britain and Ireland.
For both periods, the location tells us a story in itself; of the many possible locations, this hillfort, and subsequently the castle, is strategically situated to control movement in its hinterland, around the southern edge of Dartmoor and to control routes towards the coast along the Dart valley. It would have also controlled the upland resources of the moor itself. Hence, despite unquestionably different societies and situations that led to their building, there may have been similar military and strategic motivations – in the broadest terms – that marked the choice of location in prehistory and in the Middle Ages. We might also speculate, as noted in many other locations, whether the reuse of an earlier ancient site afforded the Norman castle-builders with a legitimacy: appropriating pre-existing understandings and perceptions of the site and shutting down alternative uses and narratives that might be connected to resistance to the Norman occupiers.
Unfortunately, that is probably as much as we can say; sites like this are conserved in ignorance; the detailed picture of their micro-histories of use and reuse are only hinted at through the stark presence of at least two phases of earthwork building in the Iron Age and Anglo-Norman periods. Hence, while a striking example of a wider pattern of medieval reuses of hillforts, one wonders how much more might be revealed through excavation and new remote sensing techniques to reveal further details about the history of the site. As it stands, Hembury isn’t a place without a past, but it is a ghostly apparition; tangible only through the hint of a generic narrative about the region’s and nation’s past, rather than a refined and rich local narrative. It reminds us that, for many ancient monuments in the British landscape, the histories of occupation, and the histories of memory, that we write are only as good as the archaeological fieldwork at our disposal.