Hillforts a worldwide phenomenon, from Britain, to New Zealand to Lithuania
As said elsewhere, the term hillforts is a British and Irish expression that describes a variety of defensive structures mostly from the Iron Age, but also of part of the Bronze Age, Roman Era, and Dark Ages.
When outside of the British Isles, while still in Europe, though many structures are of similar type, and related in terms of cultural origins, but usually local terms are used.
Outside of Europe the term gets more complicated, as any structures labelled a hillfort there, as of the distance from Europe, will not have had similar "Celtic" or European Iron Age origins.
Though the idea itself of fortifying a hilltop may be one that has earlier origins than the iron age, so a link across the span of human history, the structures themselves will have originated in their localities.
There are structures in India known as hillforts, but these are really hilltop castles, that verge from looks like palaces.
The idea of fortifying hilltops, will crop up in any settled society, but the extent to, and way which they do in Iron Age Britain does not for a variety of reasons occur everywhere (Geography, form of society, technology, better options available for example). Though ancient examples do occur across most continents, From the fortified hilltop villages of pre-Columbine Mexico.
To the not that common a idea in this region at that time, but the fortified hill top pre 1200 BC mountain slope huge centre of the Hittites. Hattusa, in the Middle East. Plus Masada, the mesa like rock, with steep cliffs surrounding it, on on the edge of the Judean desert in Israel, just south of the Palestinian's West Bank lands if you want a idea of where it is on a map. Which was the scene of a massive and brutal Roman siege according to the time's writers in 73 CE. Indeed the Ottomans in the 18th Century, had a fort overlooking the city of Mecca, in the Arabian Peninsula, not a hillfort, more a castle I say, but indicating such tactics of forts using altitude above the terrain was a tactic when possible across even the Middle East, a area more famed for ancient cities and towns, when hillforts were at their peak in Western Europe. Then of course to the fortified hilltop villages of Morocco. which survived into the 20th Century at least. This all shows that the idea does have comparisons, but they are not the same cultural creation as Europe's hillfort culture.
Then again, what about Machu Pichu, a mid fifteenth century Inca site, 2430 metres above sea level in the high altitude Peruvian Andes ridge, 49 km away from Cuzco, never reached by the Spanish as it was too remote for them. It grew over with jungle, and was known of by locals, and the odd 19th Century European, but had to be introduced to the wider world by a US explorer in the 1910s, after a villager took him there. You could say though it is on a defendable site it is not a hillfort it is more a Inca royal estate or sacred place, but maybe some hillforts were. Then again that draws in other sites. So I will not explore that anymore, but Machu Pichu is the most amazing site in many ways. It is special as it was not destroyed by the Spanish, and was grown over by jungle so amazing to be rediscovered for the world.
Ethiopia also has the Amba, which are steep sided grey brown flat topped mountains which often have villages on top, using the security advantages of their geographic features. A example would be Amba Geshen was for example a royal site, though many are for the mass of the people as well. Amba Aradam was a scene of a major battle between the Ethiopians and the Italians in the late 1930s.
The largest earthwork known ever, is the walls of Benin in South West Nigeria. Which in 1897 included 15 km of walls, banks and ditches to protect off the main city. Plus making this stats so, 16,000 KM of such in rural bits of the kingdom, built over 7 centuries, to protect villages in the low lying land’s conflicts.
Then again, am I ranging away from hillforts there, after all, China, India, South East Asia, Incas and Aztecs all have their own walled or earthwork structures.
Chashi is the Japanese term for the hilltop fortifications of the Ainu. The word is of Ainu origin. They were around in the 16th Century and earlier.
Korea also has Han Hillforts, in 550 AD, which were such forts on the River Han, with rival kingdoms causing a need for these forts. Also in China, Bronze Age hillforts have been found.in certain locations. Plus in more modern times, the Hakka tribe, have Fujian tulou, which look nothing like hillforts, but look amazing, like doughnuts, or something.
Then back to the Americas also fortified hilltop sites have been located near Lake Titicaca, such as Ayawiri, a example of a ancient Colla hillfort, excavated by archaeologists. Then in North America some tribes like the Seneca moved into fortified hilltop sites in the 1680s. Though of course hillforts were not in any way the main thing in that continental land mass to any extent. Though some have speculated if the Iroquois capital was on a hill top, but it seems more likely this fortified site was not on such a feature, but just near one. So hillforts and such like have been a form of site worldwide, but very often of completely different ways to what was found in Celtic and that kind of area Europe and such.
New Zealand Pa Hillforts
Here is the one my page has all been effectively crescendoing to though. The most astonishing equivalent to hillforts in Britain and Ireland is New Zealand. The Maoris had a culture with some striking similarities to Iron Age Britain. A culture which built hundreds of the structures, some say over 5000 across a island territory not that dissimilar to the size of Britain. One which had use in a area also before the time of gunpowder in the isles. Plus one which has plenty of archaeologists and written sources from the time, able to elaborate on the structures, and the ideas to do with them, actually more so for the Maoris structures. Both in the end were useful structures but were to see empires of greater technology and power, use overwhelming force to destroy much of the power that led these hillforts. I show pictures of some of these varieties below. So hillforts are more a European phenomenon in what they are, but have strong equivalents across the world. My story does mention hillfort style sites across the world, but the main character does not travel to them.
So as I say, indeed the most strikingly similar example is when the Maoris of New Zealand fought British soldiers in the 19th Century they had similar structures. Again the steam cooker effect of competition for land and need for defence in their own isle, produced an effect of a flowering of a number of great and fantastic features of them. Just like how they are great at netball and rugby today despite having a smaller population, than lands which are not so good at it, but more interested in football. In fact the palisades of then, and the modern remains of now were and are of similar looks to Britain’s. With they also each leading confederations of tribes. With some of populations up to 5000, with in pre-imperial days people warring against each other in seasonal wars, and later days using them to protect themselves from imperial invasion. Is it not interesting both the ancient Britain’s and Maoris were famed for tattoos, well that’s a nonsense comparison, but it’s interesting I mean how societies develop similar inventions. Not just at the same time like the Neolithic, when multiple places developed farming, worldwide far from each other, but also at different times, like these hillforts, but anyhow both hillfort traditions were distinct yet fascinating. Another similarity was how people lived in the forts, in cases just for half the year, and how they had shamans, having influence on political power, like how druids did for Britain. They also lived in huts that used natural materials like grasses, and trees, for construction, which were the equivalent of roundhouses. With mothers and babies, and grandfathers passing on the ancient stories, of the islands, within their own worldview of an ancient faith, recording some ancient god figures and ancient myths of their histories, that just like Celtic religions was to be swamped by Christianity. With a sacred centre hut at times with a idol to a pagan God, just as the Celtic hillforts had their faiths. With vegetables and other foodstuffs stored in some huts and pits, within the fort just like occurred in hillforts. With different crops like Kumara, and such as to what occurred in Britain, but a similar way of treating them. With stones axes or adzes, used and sharpened at the forts, on rocks, for war and more importantly, farming or tree cutting, or even carving. Most were on hills, or promontories, but some were on flat ground in swamps, protected by water.
Cool to think they were doing the Maori war dances famed in rugby in some of the native battles, with the stances and the faces to intimidate. Then also that some weapons used at these forts, like big stone axes, were passed generation onwards, and are still exhibited today by some Maori families or museums. Many as treasured by users, as a sword on the Iron Age, and given patterns, and designs on their handles like they were. So almost living history of a fort, and there are many oral histories that were passed down not that many generations onwards and written down surviving today of times in those days. The language still survives, and such.
There were even Pa, on the Chatham Islands, a group of isles, a whole North Island east of New Zealand away from it. On it the Moriori lived, a very related effectively descendants people of the Maoris really who arrived in the 16th Century. Showing how brutal times could be in the 1840s, some Maoris raided it, and enslaved the people of this hundreds strong population isle. I mean we Brits and our Celts did just as bad, but it shows there were brutal times, which needed defence mechanisms, just like today.
I must also say the largest New Zealand hillfort is Mangakiekie Pa, at 100 acres, or 40 hectares, from before the British, and it could hold thousands of Maoris.
NZ land had been sighted by the Dutch in 1642, not that many centuries after Maoris landed in these great long isles. 1250 to 1300 is the date that the Maoris arrived from Polynesia. Cook from Britain, a half Scottish half English captain started Britain’s relationship with it from 1769. The inter-tribal musket wars of the early 19th century killed many many thousands. Foreign diseases caused bigger falls in population. With the later British wars also killing thousands.
Maori forts apparently took months to build, and used ramparts that had wicker or stakes as palisades. It seems they had used spears and whalebone long sticks, and plump little bats in earlier days as fighting implements. Then when the British arrived they used them with muskets against British rifles, swords, and 19th century howitzers, and increased the complexity of some forts. Even then the British had to use night attacks, with the Maoris using at times dugout caves to defend for long periods off cannon attacks, v the other best method against them, sieges.
It is interesting to see how it took barely a century for them to look similar to how many hillforts in Britain look today, of just the grassy earthworks remaining. The wooden palisades, gates and huts would quickly disappear but it would take a big event or a lot of weathering to cause the forts’ earth banks to denude. British casualties did reach into the thousands in this war, so hillforts were powerful tools of defence.
Indeed for Maori forts, the forts were very difficult to take, especially in full frontal attacks. Sometimes the forts being built to lure attacks to run into killing traps, so that then the British tactic became to destroy the economic base around the fort, eventually seeing their victory in the 1860s, and 1870s. A victory that had a peace treaty which saw the Maoris then treated better, and able to keep far more control of their own lives than many other colonised and native peoples had seen at that time, partly as of the strength of these hillforts, and their use of them. It seems one British observer stated in the 1845 in earlier wars, “a model of engineering, with a treble stockade, and huts inside, these also fortified. A large embankment in rear of it, full of under-ground holes for the men to live in; communications with subterranean passages enfilading the ditch". So much more complicated than Iron Age hillforts, but with elements of them, maybe like the Viet Kong’s underground passages built to escape US bombing in the Vietnam War. Even then the essential element was hillfort-esque, indeed that fort he was mentioning at the Battle of Ruapekapeka, may have only been taken as the Maoris did not want to expect a fight on the Sabbath.
Though anyhow, some forts were taken and stormed by the Brits, as some drawings of the time show, but the taking of them was so costly it was not regarded as such a good tactic as destroying the economic base, by Britain’s overwhelmingly greater numbers of manpower and machinery. After all Britain was the greatest power in the world at that time, so this was a moral victory for the Maoris, and hillforts, even if they were a tad more technical than Iron Age forts. There were said by Lady Aileen Fox in 1976, to be 4000 Pa in New Zealand, so more than Britain.
British soldiers, US civil war style uniforms fired cannon shells, and such at the at one site, Gate of Pa. 1700 soldiers attacked, as they recorded in diaries. The general Maori defender of this Pa, said, according to Maori tellers in modern days, still your trembling hearts” to his force of 250 people in the settlement. The bombardment seemed to level the defences, but when moving into it were shocked to find the Maoris were hiding in trench and tunnels, who came out and killed. When night fell, the Maoris escaped in the darkness, through swamps below the fortification. So a example of a hillfort strange kind of victory for Maoris. As Christian by now, they even helped wounded invaders. In WW1 and WW2 Maori battalions fought along European New Zealanders for Britain’s side.
The decisive battle was at Te Ranga, a hundreds strong on each side engagement in 1864, when British recon saw the new pa had not been finished. So they in full confidence with heavy guns and rifles, fired on with almost twice the forces of their enemies, then in revenge raided the site causing a defeat that killed the main Maori general, and saw mopping up of their foes begin. Happily the lead British general was not wanting brutal war, so yes there was land ruthlessly confiscated, but it did not turn horrific in aftermath, partly in respect of the gun expert, surrendering Maori.
How ironic that this mirrored the Roman Empire’s attack on Britain two millennia earlier. That the Celts descendants, as even the English I think are in majority descended from the Celtic Britons, (as well as other groups worldwide, just like the other nations of the British Isles) of according to DNA experts, were to conquer a land of hillforts that had the 12th and 14th largest islands on Earth, ( the South Island ( Te Waipounamu ), and the North Island ( Te Ika-a-Maui ), that If combined, are one fifth larger than Britain, but a touch smaller when you add Ireland to Britain’s group as was the case in the 1860s. Britain the world’s ninth largest island, and Ireland, the world’s 20th, 4 of the isles on that list are largely frozen world though, other than some relatively smaller human settlement.
There were only 60,000 Maori in 1860, a reduction from about 100,000 in 1769, whereas there were 27 million people in Britain and Ireland in 1851, with 100,000 more of their brethren in the land of the long white cloud, Aotearoa. I say the hillforts lasting so long against the most powerful empire in the world at the time, was a moral victory for the Maoris. Whereas today 4.5 million people live there, of which 600,000 are Maori. It should be said, as of democratic advances, and peaceful people, the Europeans and Maoris are now and for a very long time have been at peace, living as one nation which respects both cultures, but within a unified egalitarian society, and have a great unified nationhood, in terms of New Zealand. Which I think both communities, which in a sense is just one multi cultural community, with people from the rest of the world as well now, can be congratulated for.
I also find the fauna of New Zealand in Maori times cool.
New Zealand was settled later, as I mention elsewhere, and had the giant eagle, Haast’s Eagle, which died out in 1400AD. They could have 9 foot wingspans. Which is shorter than the Andean Condor flying above the mountains, at 3.3 metres, or the wandering albatross at 3.5 metres, but it was 15KG so heavier even than a sea eagle. Even more impressive there were the flightless Moa birds, which died out in 1330 – 1440. Including some that were 12 foot tall. Certainly Maori myths remembered both birds, with hunts of the giant birds still occurring ritually in the 19th Century for some South Island tribes. To be honest some claim they saw them in the 18th Century, and I find it quite convincing they may have existed in tiny numbers to then. What I am saying is I think there were some giant Moa in hillforts times.
I should add the Solomon Island's have hillforts sites, like Nusa Roviana is a example. When you consider, that the Solomon Islands are a similar distance off the north east coast of Australia, as New Zealand is off South East Australia (Well actually NZ is about a bit more than the same distance to sometimes about twice as far off it's equivalent, depending on what bit of the lands you choose to measure from, but in map of the world terms that is a similar general area of the globe), then you can say they are comparatively close to each other compared to what they are to the rest of the world. Fiji also has some sites termed hillforts as well. Indeed the New Hebrides, now known as Vanuatu had palisades and such for sites on slopes as well in the 19th Century. I also read there are or were tribes in the Eastern Highland of Papua New Guinea, that were using palisades on mountain ridges, even into the late 20th Century, as defensive elements. So in a sense a element of hillforts survived into my life time, I guess it is likely they were in living memory or use, till even the 21st Century. Though likely at least one of of the hill tribes of South Asia, of either Burma, China, India's Assam, Laos and such may have done this to the mid 20th Century in some sense as well. I have not seen for sure.
So back to New Zealand. So while I am at it, here is a paragraph on hillforts from Maori, just before my links on more great sites on hillforts.
Then New Zealander
Ko nga pukepuke Maori o Niu Tireni te waa whakamutunga o nga pukepuke pukepuke. He papa whenua nga mano tini i nga wa o mua o Ingarangi, a he rauemi pai i runga i nga tikanga o te whakahe i te Tiriti o Ingarangi.
The pictures on this page are as follows. The top pictures is a public domain picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, It is labelled as A fortified town or village called a hippah (Pā), built on a perforated rock, at Tolaga in New Zealand by Thomas Morris and Herman Diedrich Sporing, 1769.jpg. Then below another Pa picture I found on Wikimedia commons, Waitaha Pa historical_site New Zealand from wiki commons.
Then another picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, The bombardment of Ruapekapeka Pa. Date published 1922 Source The New Zealand Wars, it is believed to be more contemporary than that, The New Zealand wars were wars between Britain and the Maoris in the 19th Century, with Maori Pa, the most similar construction to hillforts, outside Iron Age and Dark Ages Europe, taking a strong part in the conflict.
Then Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, public domain, a picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, this is a site with many of the attributes of a hillfort, but of a more recent and such culture. A similar position to hillfort sites in some cases, but very grand.
Then another wiki commons picture, public domain Te Ahuahu, the extinct volcano near Ohaeawai where Hone Heke (and later Tāmati Wāka Nene) had his pa in the New Zealand wars. The Battle of Te Ahuahu was fought on these slopes
Then properly lastly Baz Bahadu Palace_at_Mandu_in_Madhya_Pradesh_in_the_1880s Public Domain another picture I found on Wikimedia Commons public domain. Such sites were labelled hillforts, but are more so castles or palaces, but have some similarity in how they are on such hills to hillforts.
Then last of all, you know what I am only counting the hillforts as examples that were built on hillfortesque locations, but here last of all is a site at Rio De Janeiro, a photo I took, of kind of where there is a old Portuguese fort. Obviously manned by guns, and canons, but promontory fort_esque, and a picture of the beach.