Alnham : Iron Age (700 BC – AD 70)
The two palisaded enclosures on the south-eastern slopes of High Knowes (NT 970124, NT 970125) have been attributed to the Early Iron Age, or second half of the first millennium BC on the basis of type, though precise dating was not possible due to the scarcity of finds from excavations of these sites (Jobey & Tait 1966, 20).
There is some evidence that the construction of a timber palisade may have been a precursor of more substantial fortifications, such as stone walls or ramparts, and this does seem to have been the case at several sites, such as Yeavering Bell, Hownam Rings, Roxburghshire, and Wether Hill, near Ingram (McOmish, 1999, 14). At many Iron Age sites, however, the situation seems to have been rather more complex, and it is unsafe to assume that multivallate hillforts such as Castle Hill, west of Alnham village (NT 980109) necessarily originated as palisaded enclosures (Welfare 2002, 74).
Castle Hill, Alnham is one of the best examples of a Cheviot multivallate hillfort, and is likely to have been in existence by the mid-first millennium BC. The strong multiple ramparts suggest that defensive criteria may have been important, though the hillfort is not ideally situated from a defensive point of view. In some instances (e.g. Wether Hill, Ingram; St. Gregory’s Hill, Kirknewton), massive outworks and ramparts may have been primarily to demonstrate power and status through public display, with defence a secondary consideration (McOmish 1999, 113, Oswald & McOmish 2002, 30).
The remains of hut circles within the inner enclosure indicate that Castle Hill served as a settlement at some point, though this may have been after the ramparts had fallen out of use (Jobey & Tait 1966, 21; cf. Jobey 1965, 24). The small interior area of most Cheviot hill forts indicates that they cannot have supported any sizeable population, and many may simply have been defended farmsteads (Oswald et al.), though the poorly defended examples, such as Harehope Hill, near Akeld, rather stretch this interpretation.
In all likelihood, there is no single explanation for all so-called hillforts in the Cheviots; they may have served as animal enclosures, market places or trading stations, defensive enclosures, community centres, places of worship and expressions of power and status in a competitive society. Only detailed work, such as that recently undertaken by English Heritage as part of the “Discovering Our Hillfort Heritage” project, has the potential to understand this very complex situation.