Hillforts of Kings and Peasants

Here’s another snippet from my on-going book project. Context: I’ve surveyed the central-place indicators of the Late Roman Period (AD 150-400) in Östergötland, and now I’m moving into the book’s main period of study from AD 400 onward, starting with an evaluation of the Migration Period hillforts. Are they useful for my present king-chasing purposes?

A somewhat relevant site type in the search for Migration Period elite settlements is the hillfort, of which Östergötland has many. They appear to have about the same date distribution as the field walls (Late Roman and Migration Periods), but their interpretation is less clear-cut: they cannot be seen as a single class of commensurable sites.

Most hillforts show no sign of habitation, are located away from the best farmland and were probably built as refuges in anticipation of war. Clearly, building one took a respectable amount of labour, but most are simple structures: Nordén (1938:280, and I translate) mentions “… many of Östergötland’s hillforts, whose low, irregularly undulating ramparts often may seem to the casual observer as rather haphazardly created natural formations …”. Nothing suggests that that such a project would have demanded top-down coercive leadership rather than the voluntary collaboration of a number of households.

Other forts in densely settled areas such as Boberget in Konungssund and Odensfors in Vreta kloster have thick culture layers, usually with evidence for textile working and other crafts, and should probably be seen as fortified farmsteads with varying social pretensions (Olsén 1965:145; Olausson 1987). Yet most of Östergötland’s hillforts have seen no excavations, and determining the type of an individual fort can be difficult.

The hillforts’ overall distribution across the province (Olsén 1965:143; Hyenstrand 1984:88; Kaliff 1987a; Selinge REF) reflects their multifaceted character. Almost all of them are in semi-marginal locations in the eastern half of the plains belt, probably because a) the coast’s proximity allowed seaborne attackers to pose a greater threat here, b) the eastern half of the plains belt has far more hills. The few hillforts in western Östergötland occupy strongly marginal locations along waterways leading south from the central plains or have been placed offensively to guard Motala ström and Lake Boren. This means that as indicators of an elite presence, the hillforts have severe weaknesses. We have noted previously that the Gullborg fort in Tingstad parish has finds of Late Roman Period gold and glass and a metal-casting crucible. But this observation cannot be generalised to tell us anything about other hillforts in Östergötland. All we really have is gold and glass and metal-casting at that individual site.

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Comments

  1. #1 mary e
    December 11, 2007

    Do you have fortified (palisaded) sites where there are no hills? Are the hillforts palisaded or just earthen ramparts/breastworks?
    If they are off the best agricultural potential areas, are they in areas suited better to livestock? (Meaning maybe they are cowpens.)
    I’m not sure how you would evaluate “voluntary” vs. “coersive” labor, or wheter your tribes or whatever you care to call ‘em were relatively eqalitarian, or relatively stratified, if you can’t directly tie graves, sets of buildings, or spelialists like metalworkers to the occupation period of the hillforts.
    How much of this relies on ethnohistoric analaogy?

  2. #2 Martin R
    December 11, 2007

    Good questions!

    Do you have fortified (palisaded) sites where there are no hills?

    None that we know of.

    Are the hillforts palisaded or just earthen ramparts/breastworks?

    Most are just drywall stone ramparts. Currently they look like messy droves of rocks, but they may have been neatly piled up 1500 years ago.

    If they are off the best agricultural potential areas, are they in areas suited better to livestock? (Meaning maybe they are cowpens.)

    No, they’re typically on barren hilltops in the woods where the granite peeks through. I’m sure they’d bring their livestock there temporarily when an attack was expected, though.

    I’m not sure how you would evaluate “voluntary” vs. “coersive” labor, or wheter your tribes or whatever you care to call ‘em were relatively eqalitarian, or relatively stratified, if you can’t directly tie graves, sets of buildings, or spelialists like metalworkers to the occupation period of the hillforts.

    We do have that kind of coeval evidence. I’m trying to find the seats of those petty kings. And it looks like most of the hillforts were not such seats.

    How much of this relies on ethnohistoric analaogy?

    None that I am aware of. When Swedish written history starts, society has already gone through dramatic change with the introduction of Christianity, convents and towns. In fact, one of my aims with the project is to make a clean break with the all-too-common tendency to project the 14th century situation back across the preceding millennium.

  3. #3 Lennart Nilsson
    December 11, 2007

    I totally agree with you on the tendency to use high medeival political structures and project them backwards half a millenium and more. But what about comparisons with contemporary structures in the parts of Europe that had written history?

  4. #4 Martin R
    December 11, 2007

    Yeah, it’s been done quite a lot, comparisons with historical records about the Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, the Goths… But I’m not sure I’ll need that sort of model-building to explain the archaeological data. I’m not aiming for historical detail, more for an archaeological landscape of power.

    It’s kind of hard to write political history when you don’t know if manor site A and manor site B represent two hostile factions, or if they were in fact owned by the same guy, or if they kept oscillating between friendship and hostilities every ten years.

  5. #5 Martin S
    December 12, 2007

    Some thoughts from Vastergotland. The largest hillforts in VG are also amongst the largest in Sweden; Halleberg (1800m wall) and Mosseberg (600m wall). They are both situated in areas with a lot of indications of centers of power. I am especially intrigued that you find close to Halleberg, Vaestra (western) Tunhem and close to Mosseberg, Ostra (eastern) Tunhem. These forts that are quite massive have in the vicinity some of the heaviest gold-finds from the migration period; Vittene and Jattene. These forts both stick out as being more monumental then the more “common” kind. These forts have probably been used by a large number of people at crisis. Could the largest of the hillforts be of some special interest when it comes to finding places of power?
    Best
    Martin S

  6. #6 Martin R
    December 12, 2007

    Yes, I agree. The more labour and engineering knowledge that goes into a structure, the greater the political power behind it.

    Most of Östergötland’s hillforts, however, took fairly little labour and engineering knowledge to build. Typically, people have sought out a mountaintop with sheer sides and built short stretches of simple stone rampart to close off bits that aren’t sheer.

  7. #7 Martin S
    December 12, 2007

    Looking at Alvhem in VG, I think that it’s a central place of great interest, probably a predecessor to Lodose that in the late Viking age time became a town. Alvhem is situated on a ridge with a great view over the Gota Alv. It is surrounded by good farmland and is a “lock” on the “highway” into VG. Alvhem could have been the heart in a hillfort “cluster”. There are two controlling the river and there are two “controlling the entrance to the valley. There are also a “chain” of hillforts all the way to the ocean. Maybe a place of power had several hillforts for different purposes in the region under its power? With this logic the hillforts should be put in relation to communication, defence and places of power. Where the place of power is located for fast access/control etc of the hillforts?

    Best
    Martin S

  8. #8 Jonathan Jarrett
    December 14, 2007

    I’m sure that you will have considered this, but do the forts on a map fit into any kind of obvious scheme? Are they evenly spaced, or along lines? I realise that some, mentioning no Linds, see lines more easily than others but sometimes I’d still expect top-down planning to be visible in the landscape. I’m quite happy to believe that there wasn’t any, though, in fact that would be quite a useful parallel, so I mainly ask to secure the various loopholes that might exist…

  9. #9 Martin R
    December 14, 2007

    The forts form lines only to the extent that the area’s hills form lines. There’s been voluminous speculation about signalling fires on the fortified hills (on any hill the archaeologist likes, really). I find this discussion to be a complete waste of time. The historical evidence is hundreds of years too late and really patchy, and there’s no way anybody could ever document that a certain hilltop has (or has never) been used for a signalling fire.

    Furthermore, if we want to speculate, then why confine ourselves to the 1st Millennium? Why not posit signalling fires all the way back to the day back in the Early Mesolithic when those hilltops broke the surface of the Baltic?

    (I talk about this in an appendix to my book manuscript where I brush off previous work that doesn’t pass critical muster.)

  10. #10 Martin S
    December 15, 2007

    In my case its obvious that you can se from one hillfort to the other, all the way to the ocean. If they did, i dont know.
    Dont know anything about fires on hilltops.. Just think that its logical that people with power probably liked to control communications such as roads and waterways. We know that large estates in the iron-age had different “functions” spread out in the landscape, why not also defence? These ideas are not new at all look into the literature from such (professionals!) as Stefan Brink, Lars Lundquist etc

  11. #11 Martin R
    December 15, 2007

    Sure, we need to build models of past societies and refine them successively by tests against the source material. But we shouldn’t build speculations about signalling lines into our models.

  12. #12 Gary
    April 15, 2011

    Hi Martin,

    Any news on when/if this book will be published? Since I’m conducting similar research on the northern Pictish kings as part of my PhD thesis I would be very interested in reading the final version. I have the draft you posted on here, how ‘final’ is that now, a year and a bit further on?

    Cheers,
    Gary

  13. #13 Martin R
    April 15, 2011

    The book is due out in August. I’ll e-mail you the pertinent chapter’s final version.

  14. #14 Gary
    April 15, 2011

    Thanks Martin. My thesis covers the whole first millennium, so I’ll be interested in the whole thing, but the period c. 500-900AD is of greatest interest.