Clifton Camp

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Gail Boyle, archaeologist at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, climbs the earth wall defences at the iron age Clifton Camp. Terry Hannan, head gardener on the Downs, describes forthcoming tree works to protect the site.

Image of three reconstructed thatched Iron Age round houses

Iron Age village reconstruction (Eleda 1)


Gail Boyle:

We’re sitting on the edge of Clifton down camp, we’re within a stone’s throw of the suspension bridge. Where we’re sitting is a bit of a hidden gem in terms of archaeology as we’re sitting on the edge of an iron age hillfort. Today most people would think this is a nice earthen bank with lots of trees growing out of the top of it, and in the past it was a series of banks and ditches. So you dig a ditch and pile up the earth to create a bank, and they’ve done that several times so you have several banks and several ditches that get progressively higher towards an enclosure. The Observatory sits within the enclosure.

If we go up that path just there, you can see that even with the amount of erosion that’s taken place already, that its still very steep and very hard to get up this hillside. And we’re going up,I don’t know, probably about twenty feet or maybe more, over the first bank. Imagine if you were trying to storm this, if you were an enemy you’d be stumped by the time you got here and these ditches would have been so much deeper, there’s such a lot of material that has come off the bank and gone into them and filled them in, that this is actually much easier than it would have been in the prehistoric period.

We’ve just gone over the top of the ramparts and now we’re standing facing Clifton Observatory. It is amazing to think we’re standing somewhere where somebody over 2,000 years ago, spent all this time digging.

We know the whole of this area was occupied by a Celtic tribe called the Dobunni tribe, and it may well be that this is one of their strongholds. You can see the massive size of this rampart, this has got to be something where they brought huge numbers of people together to construct them. Its sitting right up high on the gorge It says ‘hey, look at us, we’re capable of this’ . It’s a symbol of power in the landscape. You can see it for literally miles and miles and miles down the Avon Gorge. It’s almost like a tribal marker, it’s a territorial thing. We’re talking about a period of time when peoples lives had become much more sedentary, they are farmers, there are even Celtic field systems up on Durdham Down, It may well be that this is actually a settlement. We have no way of knowing what it looked like inside but some hillforts have the remains of roundhouses so thatched roof, circular shaped with walls made out of wattle and daub, probably a central fireplace in the middle so, you can imagine two or three of those inside an enclosure with smoke gently coming out of the top, and some of the cattle and other animals that were being farmed by people who occupied it.

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