Those of us that try and avoid the traffic on the Newton Road sometimes take the St Marychurch Road between Torquay and Newton Abbot. In doing so, we drive right through the centre of a series of earthworks.
These are what remains of Milber Iron Age Hill Fort, a site that was occupied between around 50BC and 50AD.
Devon has many ramparted Iron Age enclosures such as Milber, which are usually called hill forts, though only some are truly defensible. As Milber is situated 35 metres below the hilltop, and with a further 30 metres fall internally, it was vulnerable to attack. Therefore, it’s probably more accurate to call it a hill-slope enclosure.
Such local enclosures were built by a loose confederation of Celtic tribes known as the Dumnonii – from which we derive the place-name ‘Devon’. The Dumnonii occupied a relatively isolated part of Britain and their connections were often with the peninsula of Armorica across the Channel, rather than with the southeast. They don’t seem to have had a political centre.
The enclosure is constructed on the northern slopes of a 150 metres high tract of upland between the Teign estuary and the Aller Brook. It consists of three concentric enclosures: the innermost is 116 by 96 metres, the second and third are narrow strips 10 to 25 metres wide, each being defended by a large rampart and ditch. There was also a large outer enclosure probably for cultivation, bounded by the remains of a low bank.
The entrance to the fortifications was on the lower North West side, facing towards the nearest water supply. It began as an embanked track 7metres wide across the outer enclosure and was probably a drove-way for stock. These gateways were destroyed by the construction of the St Marychurch Rd.
The site was excavated by archaeologists in 1937-8. They found that people lived in the central and second enclosures and that they used hand-made pottery with curvilinear designs known as Glastonbury Ware.
There’s little agreement on what hill forts were for. Among other explanations they could be: the home of a local elite; symbols of power; centralised food stores; centres of trade and manufacture; or they could have a religious purpose. Perhaps they may have been a refuge for the surrounding farmsteads when raiders were about. Or they could have been all of these, simultaneously or at different times.
Whatever their true function, they were strongly defended and enclosures such as Milber suggest a number of small tribal groups living alongside each other and possibly engaged in feuds.
A few hundred years before the occupation of the site many people in Britain lived in apparently peaceful farming communities. By the time of the Milber enclosure, the number of people in Iron Age Britain could have been three or four million, with most concentrated in the agricultural lands of the South. Population increases and land shortages may have contributed to rising tensions during the period and an increased likelihood of conflict.
The proliferation of hill forts and the discovery of a substantial number of weapons throughout Britain suggests the growth of a tribal aristocracy, a warrior elite controlling the land and the food it produced. Archaeological evidence indicates that feasting was a way of showing power, the chieftain proving his ability to gather and distribute surplus food.
This would have been a society of young people compared to today. The average life expectancy at birth was around 25 due to high infant mortality, but at the age of five it was around 30. The population of Iron Age Britain would have seen very few people older than fifty years.
These were often wealthy communities with a sophisticated artistic tradition. Indeed, some art historians believe that Iron Age design was the single greatest contribution ever made by the British to the art world.
We have evidence of the artistic skill of Milber’s inhabitants. In the 1938 excavation, three small bronze figurines were unearthed in the upper filling of a ditch. They had been buried in the early first century AD after the enclosure had been abandoned. These were a bird, a duck and a stag, about 6 centimetres long and up to 3.5 centimetres high. The bird has a long tail and detached wings; the stag is lying down, with a raised band extending across its body; the duck is swimming, with what’s been described as a little cake in its mouth.
It has been suggested that they served some kind of ritual function, and could have been mounted on a ceremonial staff, vessel or casket.
Yet, Milber wasn’t to last. After being lived in for about 100 years, it was deserted soon before the Roman conquest in the mid-first century.
What has been discovered recently is that the inhabitants of Milber were our ancestors.
Over the past decade geneticists looking at our DNA have found that (with the exception of our most recent arrivals), the vast majority of us are the direct decedents of the hunters that reclaimed Britain from the retreating ice sheets 12,000 years ago.