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Beyond the Ramparts: Professor Gary Lock

Beyond the ramparts header

They are iconic elements in our historic landscape: many are lonely hills, looming and visible for miles around.

But until recently surprisingly little was known about the thousands of hillforts that are scattered across the UK and Ireland.

Even the name is misleading. Many aren't actually on hills and most probably aren't even forts.

It's now thought unlikely that their primary purpose was military and they were probably some kind of central place where a dispersed rural population could gather at significant moments. But quite when and what for remains unknown.


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The entrance to the Hillforts Atlas website

New research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council hopes to explore this and other mysteries surrounding these enigmatic places.

For the first time, a detailed online atlas has drawn together the locations and details of the UK and Ireland’s 4,147 hill forts.

The research project was led by Professor Gary Lock of the University of Oxford, and Professor Ian Ralston from the University of Edinburgh.

“The first reason we decided to compile this atlas was because these are popular monuments in the public mind,” says Gary Lock, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, and one of those behind the study.

“A lot of people visit them, they walk their dogs there, and play with their children on them. They are often located in beautiful places.”

“The second reason is that these are monuments that are integral to Iron Age studies. We need to know more about them."

“And the third reason is simply that it is very hard to access information about them at the moment. If you want to look at any scale larger than an individual site then it’s very hard to do so.”

Prof Lock says that, while there were some national records, they weren't in a form that was easy to use – and it was very difficult to get access to comparable information across national borders.

The new atlas is built on a colossal collection of data. Lurking behind the URL is information harvested from pre-existing sources, site surveys and library research – all carefully formatted so that it is coherent and broken down into the same characteristics.

Satellite image of Willapeak camp in Cornwall
Taken from the hillforts atlas website, you can see where a hillfort is in relation to another location, enabling visitors to make the most out of their trips around Britain and Ireland. The site is accessable on portable devices.

“One of the really great potential uses of the dataset is that it is easily downloaded as a CSV file meaning that you can run it through whatever database you are using, or through Geographic Information Systems (GIS),” says Professor Lock.

“It is the beginning of a whole new era of research and will allow us all to compare work on a local, national, and even international scale.”

Professor Lock says that one of the most important lessons he has learned from undertaking a project at this scale is that it's essential to allow plenty of time.

“It takes a lot longer than you think it will,” he says. “For some of the team, we initially only had funding for three years. But we needed them for longer. It’s easy to underestimate the scope and scale of a project like this.”

There was also a big citizen science element to the project, which Professor Lock describes as “very rewarding”.

Professor Gary Lock on Segsbury Camp
Professor Gary Lock on Segsbury Camp

“We actually got members of the public out and exploring these sites,” he says.

“I have to admit that before we started we were a bit sceptical about what could be achieved. But their help turned out to be absolutely invaluable.

“If I was designing the project again we would have put a lot more in the budget for this element.

“We are lucky that there are a lot of archaeological and historical societies in this country and many of them are looking for a project to get involved with. They really want to join in with the ‘official’ research community and I think they got a lot out of their involvement. We certainly got a massive – and very enthusiastic – response when we asked for help.”

As for the support of AHRC, Professor Lock says that a great working relationship between researchers and the funding body was essential to the project's success – particularly when it came to publicity.

“The whole team is very grateful to the AHRC,” he says. “They were fairly hands –off, which is good. But when the project came to an end they picked it up as something of public interest and organised a massive publicity campaign, which was brilliant.

“We were featured across the media and that got the public interested and engaged. The web stats for the first week were really incredible. It was a wonderful feeling to see the public engaging with our work.”


“I'm a big fan of the sites on the Clywdian Hills in Wales,” says Professor Lock.

The track to Moel Arthur in the Clywdian Hills, Wales, in the snow
Snow covers the beautifully evocative track to Moel Arthur in the Clywdian Hills, Wales. Photo courtesy of Micahel Ely @geograph.org.uk

This series of hills and mountains in north east Wales runs from Llandegla in the south to Prestatyn in the north, with the highest point at Moel Famau.

“There are about five hillforts along the top,” says Professor Lock. “The Offa’s Dyke also runs along the top, right through the sites and they are absolutely stunning. It really is an incredibly evocative location.”


The hillforts project was funded by the AHRC through our responsive mode application system. You can find out more about our funding schemes on our research grants page.

The AHRC Communications team always love hear the stories of your AHRC-funded research. If you'd like some support in publicising your work, don't hesitate to contact us on communications@ahrc.ukri.org or on 01793 416021.

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