Ancient History on Holmbury Hill

Hello my name is Tom Kitching, I am a Royal Society University Research Fellow at MSSL, and my research is focussed mainly on dark energy and cosmic gravitational lensing. However these subjects will be saved for a future blog post :)

Part of the inspiration of the MSSL astronomy blog was that we want to try and convey what an amazing place MSSL is to work. The department is unique in its location, and in this blog we will occasionally share some of our fascination in the environment in which we work. In todays blog post I will talk about some of the ancient history of Holmbury Hill, this first blog on the history of Holmbury Hill should hopefully serve as a taster for more to come.

Holmbury Hill Fort

MSSL is situated on Holmbury Hill which has a rich history going back thousands of years! It is a very short (but quite steep!) walk from MSSL, through Hurtwood (named after the Hurtberry – or Bilberry – which grows there abundantly) to the top of Holmbury Hill. Once at the top you are not only rewarded by the amazing views stretching over the Weald to the South Downs, but also with views of the remains of an Iron Age Hill fort.

The Iron Age (approx. 1000 BCE to 500 BCE) is the period of human history in western Europe that defines the time when Iron began to widely used in the area. This marked a significant change in technology, from the preceding Bronze Age, because Iron is harder and more resilient than Bronze. At the same time religious, artistic and sociological changes occurred. The most notable Iron Age civilisation were the Romans. On the island of Great Britain the Iron Age was a time of huge transformation, not least is that the region was invaded by the Romans, and preexisting Bronze Age tribes had to adapt. There is a lot of detailed study into this era of human history, here we’ll look at just one aspect of life during that time.

Hill forts are a generic term for settlements, created during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and can be found on top of the many rolling hills and mountains in Britain. Common characteristics are massive Earth works, banks, ditches and mounds, that are thought to have been made for defensive purposes. Within a hill fort are normally found the remains of residential structures, like roundhouses. It is unknown whether people lived in these all year round, or used them only as needed during times when defence was required. They also served as “status symbols” for tribes, and visible structures in the landscape. The fort on holmbury hill is an impressive structure, to walk around the banks and ditches one marvels at how such a structure was created 2000 years ago, and wonders what it was like to live there. The Surrey Archaeological Society have a very nice article on the Hill Fort that goes into much more detail here (there is also a nice article here There are some particularly nice quotations for example

“The results of this survey emphasise the skill with which the original builders utilised the existing topography, and also their concern that the monument should be visible from, and overlook, the expanse of the Weald to the south.” link

Indeed Holmbury Hill is one of the highest in the area at 857 feet, with a relatively steep northern face, so one can appreciate the strategic position that the builders choose. It is thought that the Hill fort was built by Belgic tribes and that it was occupied during the middle Bronze Age. The fort was apparently abandoned around the first century BCE, but for reasons unknown.


Surrey and the surrounding counties are a wonderful place to explore. To place the Holmbury Hill fort in context there are several other hill forts in the area, one of the closest is Anstiebury on the neighbouring Leith Hill. Anstiebury was also buit during the Iron Age, but it is not quite as well defined as Holmbury Hill in some respects, and in the intervening 2000 years a village has grown up around the site!

Another interesting context for the Iron Age is the network of Roman roads and villas in the area. In particular the Roman road Stane Street that ran from the coastal town of Noviomagus Reginorum, or Regnentium, later renamed Chichester to Londinium, later renamed (this translation is easy!) London. In fact there is a spur that comes off Stane Street and runs very close to Holmbury Hill.

From Showing the area around Holmbury Hill (marked with a star) and the Roman Roads marked in Red.

From Showing the area around Holmbury Hill (marked with a star) and the Roman Roads marked in Red.


As an astronomer and physicist, archaeology presents a fascinating topic to explore. In fact there are many similarities with astronomy, on the technical side for example each field has a single realization of the data set being analyzed: there are only so many artefacts to be found, there are only so many galaxies in the Universe, so both need to use techniques (for example Bayesian statistics – used in Radiocarbon dating, and cosmological parameter inference) that enable a rigorous analysis in these cases. And both astronomy and archaeology inspire people to investigate the Universe around them, and ultimately help to contextualise our lives; placing us within the Universe or illuminating the history of our civilisations and our species.

On a  warm spring day Holmbury Hill seems like a a very nice place to live, it certainly is a nice place to work. We may never know exactly why people built a hill fort here, or why they left, but over 2000 years later at MSSL we continue to enjoy the environment of Holmbury Hill and can take inspiration from the stories it holds.


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