MASSACRE AT THE HILLFORT; Mass Grave That Is Challenging Our Beliefs about Iron Age Britain

Article excerpt

Byline: David Derbyshire Environment Editor

THE screams must have been unbearable.

High on the peaks of the Pennines, a terrified group of women and children sat huddled in the half-finished ditches and walls of their hillfort, surrounded by gloating faces.

Their men were missing, either killed in battle or taken to one side to be pressed into military service or sold as slaves by their captors.

But that left the less valuable women and children to be disposed of. Any pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears.

Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women, babies and children were stabbed or strangled, stripped of possessions and tossed into the ditch that encircled the fort.

Then their attackers toppled a 13ft-high limestone wall over their broken bodies, covering them with a litter of rocks and soil.

This is what archaeologists believe to be the explanation for a 2,400-year-old mass grave discovered at Fin Cop in Derbyshire.

The findings are challenging some widely held views about life in Iron Age Britain and whether life before the Romans was quite as peaceful as some academics like to claim.

Dr Clive Waddington, of Archaeological Research Services, assisted by his team and hundreds of volunteers and local schoolchildren, uncovered the grisly find in two sections of a ditch, created as part of the fort's defences.

While so far only nine bodies have been found, Dr Waddington believes there will be many more buried with them. He said: 'We excavated ten metres but there is 400m of ditch around the site, and the implication is that could be dozens - if not hundreds - of bodies there.'

The nine bodies, which had been thrown carelessly in the ditch and covered with rubble from a stone wall, include four babies, one of whom was unborn, a two-year-old, a teenage boy and three adults, two of whom were definitely women and one whose sex is unknown.

There were no personal possessions, suggesting the captors removed any valuables.

Dr Waddington believes they were massacred after the hillfort was attacked and captured by a rival chieftain.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the Fin Cop hillfort was built around 400BC, but was destroyed before completion.

'The ditches and fort were never finished,' said Dr Waddington. 'They had started to make a second wall but that wasn't completed. You can tell that it was a hasty thing - they were trying to rapidly build it and it was not done on time.'

It has become fashionable to interpret Iron Age hillforts, of which 3,000 have been found across the country, as farming settlements or status symbols - the prehistoric equivalent of Tudor castles and 19th century stately homes - rather than military defences. …