Henge or Hillfort?
Few people realise that Stonehenge is not a henge. It has a circular embankment but the ditch is on the outside. Technically, a henge must have it’s ditch on the inside of the bank. It’s an example of the confusion that arises when we consider prehistoric features. Perhaps it is easier to confuse henges with hillforts. Both are prehistoric constructions, often little more than bumps covered by turf. As the circular or oval henges were relatively small, they often sank. They then became wooded or were ground away under the plough. The hillforts, being larger and often atop hills, have survived to a greater degree. A henge or hillfort need to be visited and compared to see the differences.
Age Really Matters
The real difference is their age, apart from the position of that ditch. The henge is the earliest feature, built around 5,000 years ago. The ditch is on the inside of the bank which skirts round the outside; this was clearly not dug for defence purposes. Henges may have been built for ceremonies, or for trading and even for exposing bodies to birds. The hillfort, a defensive structure, is about half that age, built 2,500 years ago. The ditch, often a series, one above the other, is on the outside of the bank. The defenders could herd their cattle inside the hillfort, then stand on the bank and look down over the ditches to any enemy force. The Romans attacked defended hillforts and, even in their time, were puzzled over the purpose of the already ancient henges.
Dorset has the largest and most distinctive hillforts in Europe. The closest to Christchurch is Dudsbury, although this is now heavily wooded. Experts assume that all hillforts would have been cleared of trees so that the country beneath can be observed. The star locations are Badbury Rings, Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill (see photo of Hambledon). These four offer open views and create an experience closest to how they must have appeared in the Iron Age. Hod Hill even has a Roman Fort in one corner, an example of how they demonstrated their power.
We can assume that most of the henges have disapeared. In my forthcoming book ‘My Pagan Ancestor Zuri’ I explain how the henges were often overlain, three thousand or more years later, by a church. This was because the henge was seen locally as a place of the black arts. Consequently, nobody built over the space and it offered perhaps the only location for a church when Christianity expanded. The Christian church also had the ‘power’ to subsume the devil’s work in the henge. Knowlton Church is the perfect example of this, and sits inside an oval henge. Durrington Walls, in Wiltshire, is the biggest henge. In my book, I also contend that a henge existed beneath Christchurch Priory. That location, embraced by two rivers, begged to be used for pagan worship. How could I resist it?