above steyning crop

River and Hill


By Jim Hindle, Jun 9 2012 08:00AM

Long after the barrows that seem to be pointing towards it were built, Caburn’s first initial circling ditch and bank were dug out and piled up. The date for these is thought to be of the Middle Iron Age, some one hundred to four hundred years then before Christ. The dating, together with its location in the center of a downland block, places the hillfort in a group including Cissbury, Torberry and the Trundle. Unlike Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age hillforts which are generally, around here, on liminal locations on the south and north edge of the Downs, these local Middle Iron Age hillforts appear to be primarily concerned with the internal coordination of their regions, rather than standing as outposts against the enemies or rivals or closer cousins of neighbouring tribes; perpetually marking out boundaries, rallying at real or half imagined threats.

In this, these later forts may have something in common with those such as Bigberry, Llanmelin and St Cath’s; locations in turn for the later regional capitals of Canterbury, Caerwent and Winchester. Many such forts may have originated out of traditional meeting places: even if the occurrence of cattlefairs or a level of settlement within the ramparts resembling something like a market town is unlikely for the small round dome of Caburn itself, the hillfort here must have been a sign - and very probably too a crucial linchpin - of the community it was both borne out of and helped to define.

And yet a stranger narrative exists; that while many forts were anchored in place by a untold tract of settlement preceding them and many surely were built to help ward off aggression, some at least may have been planted as staging posts to help consolidate invasion. In the intermittent years before the classical authors opened up the first written window into tribes and their rough wherebouts, it’s difficult to tell where one people ended and another began. Even so, it seems a stretch to conceive that Caburn ever acted as a staging post of an incursion; it seems so rooted in vast hinterlands of time, seems so at peace with some kind of older fellowship. It stands now as a symbol for something more longstanding and benign than thoughts of any ancient subjugation; more than a fort, it sits as a part of the landscape itself, speaks of both foundation and endurance.

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