Beyond the Ramparts: Professor Ian Ralston
At the heart of all discovery is data. And when that data isn't good enough, it's hard for research to move forward.
Hillforts have long been known to be essential to our understanding of the Iron Age – and yet until this summer there was no good dataset available for study.
Archaeologists knew that most were built between 1000 BC and 700 AD. But they seem to have had numerous functions, many of which are still poorly understood.
“What we all recognised was that the collections of data that had existed up until now were not up to the job of investigating these monuments,” says Ian Ralston, Abercromby Professor of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, and one of those behind a major new AHRC-funded online atlas of British and Irish hillforts launched in June.
The main published reference works weren't up-to-date with current research and for study to move forward, archaeologists needed access to a new overview.
“It was a real problem,” says Prof Ralston. “We got our cartographer to do a map of hillforts in Scotland back in 1996 and even then the data as it existed looked very tired.
“Where people have written overviews, if you look at their maps, they are often just shaded, ‘here are hillforts,' they just don’t have the detail. And detail is of course absolutely essential to research.”
Professor Ralston's decision to embark on creating the atlas – along with Oxford colleague, Professor Gary Lock – was also driven by his experience as an aerial photographer using photographs to look for archaeological sites.
“I knew from this work that there were comparable sites popping up in the lowlands in areas where they had been ploughed flat – where no-one knew they existed until recently – and we needed to reflect this,” he says.
In all, the researchers found 4,147 sites - ranging from well-preserved forts to those where only crop marks are left.
Key to the project's success was collaboration. “In particular, we had really good contacts with our colleagues in Ireland and knew that no-one had considered in any detail how sites on both sides of the Irish Sea related to each other,” says Prof Ralston. “We wanted to address that together.”
Involving the public in gathering data was a surprisingly significant element.
“The citizen science part was an add-on, really,” says Prof Ralston. “We had no idea how it was going to work – or if it was going to work, but it was very successful. It gave us a lot of extra capacity, and we’d recommend its use for similar projects in the future.
“Interestingly, there was a geographical element to its success. The local historical and archaeological societies which undertook the reporting are much stronger in some areas of the country than others.”
The relationship with AHRC was also critical. “We have been dealt with extremely well by AHRC,” says Prof Ralston. “We had to make modifications to the project as it went along, and they were very understanding about it.
“The main change was that we decided to include colleagues at University College Cork to input the Irish data, rather than recruiting to the team in Oxford or Edinburgh. It was cost neutral, but it made a real difference to us in terms of having access to real local knowledge of the sites – and that in turn made a big difference to the success of the project.”
Prof Ralston says he hopes the website and atlas will inform studies on this key class of monument by opening up new avenues of research and raising new questions.
“In particular, I hope it really opens up the international dimension,” he says.
“There are comparable sites across a wide swathe of Europe and yet there has been very little research pulling all this together”.
“I hope our research may be a useful model for similar projects that would ultimately allow us to do that. I hope it can be a building block for something bigger”.
“Perhaps then we can get a better understanding of what the shared elements mean.”
“I still have a real soft spot for Tap o’ Noth,” says Prof Ralston.
This hillfort stands on top of the Hill of Noth, which is 20 miles west of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
“There’s an oblong stone wall on the summit that is still very visible in the landscape, as well as a more degraded bank downslope which encloses a much bigger area.
“One big advantage of many British and Irish sites like Tap o’ Noth is that they are located on moorland or rough pasture.
“The lack of trees and tall vegetation means that surviving features are still easy to pick out in the landscape. They are big and chunky and easy to appreciate as you walk around.”