Dig Deeper: Life in a hillfort
What were the houses like?
Hut circles or platforms have been found on hillforts in East Lothian and can be seen at booth Traprain and North Berwick Law. They are cleared and flattened areas where houses were built. The houses had walls made of stone, wood or turf and would probably be roofed with turf or reeds (thatch). The houses were around 8 – 15m in diameter and could have housed up to 20 people. Different houses were used for different purposes, rather like today – on some Iron Age sites there are buildings that were used for iron working or weaving.
How many people would have lived in a hillfort?
At Traprain the settlement on top of the hill was the size of a small town, with roadways, animals, buildings etc. Traprain was the capital of the Votadini, the local tribe. People living at North Berwick Law had a better view of the sea as well as the surrounding countryside so it was also a strategic place to live.
How would people live?
People would have used the surrounding woodland for timber, firewood and hunting animals. There were fields located on the slopes at North Berwick Law and animals were kept within the hillfort. Shells have been found in the midden at North Berwick Law, so they used sea resources as well. Each hillfort traded goods such as pottery and axes with other hillforts and settlements on the plain. For water there is a rock-cut cistern (for collecting rain water) at Traprain. There is a modern one at North Berwick but water runs off the rock here so there could have been one here in the Iron Age to collect water.
Why build defended sites?
Hillforts were built partly for defence and partly to demonstrate prestige or status. Lots of defensive banks and ditches, called ramparts added to the way a hillfort appeared to others. The ramparts were made by made by digging deep ditches and throwing the soil behind them. The banks often had a fence on top and there would have been timber gateways into the fort.
Warfare during the Bronze and Iron Age had a strong element of display with the use of chariots and war trumpets and the hillforts might be all part of this ritualised aggression and display. This may have been small scale fighting between local communities such as cattle raiding or longer range raids for plunder or slaves.
The position of North Berwick Law meant you would see anyone coming from all sides. The ramparts are thought to date to the early settlement on the hill in the Bronze Age. The ramparts surround the summit and the houses were built closer to the top in the Bronze Age. Later, in the Iron Age people started to build the houses further down the hill and the ramparts were collapsing and not being repaired. This might be because society became more stable or because the settlement was expanding.