Unravelling the Story of an Ancient British Site
Until 1939 the story of Castle Hill, Almondbury, was virtually unknown. Amongst experts there were considerable differences of opinion as to the date and purpose of the earthworks which surround the hill. Some held that Castle Hill had been a stronghold of the Brigantes, the prehistoric forbears of modern Yorkshiremen; others believed the earthworks belonged to the Norman period. In 1939 the late Dr. Thomas Woodhead, himself a distinguished student of all matters concerning the Pennines, persuaded the Huddersfield Corporation to permit of a scientific examination of the earthworks in order to settle the details of its history once and for all.
The Roman Antiquities Committee of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, working in conjunction with a local committee, sponsored the excavations which began in August, 1939, and continued until the outbreak of war, to be resumed in the summer of 1947 and to be concluded, it is hoped, this year.
The excavations have been carried out with the help of large numbers of volunteers drawn from all parts of England, assisted by. locally recruited paid labour. The general public have shown great interest from the start, as has the local Press, and as a token of gratitude for their support I shall try to describe the results of the excavations to date.
The story of Castle Hill begins towards the end of the third century B.C. (c. 200), when the local tribesmen, probably descendants of the people who had first colonised the South Pennines in the Bronze Age, built a small earthwork at the west end of the hill. This earthwork consists of a single bank and ditch with a simple entrance which is still used by the brewery wagon on its way to the Castle Hill Hotel. This original camp suffered from one obvious defect, namely, that the people living inside the camp could not command a view of the approaches to the hill on all sides. This defect was speedily remedied when the camp was extended to include the whole of the hill-top, which was now enclosed by a double series of banks and ditches running round the top of the hill, through which a very elaborate entrance was made at the north-east end, along the line now followed by the Castle steps. The people who built this extended camp did not live inside the defences as was the usual custom; instead, they built their huts on the lower plateau which lies below the north end of the hill. These huts were enclosed by a single bank and ditch built in the same style as the rest of the defences.
Rampart Of Great Strength
Fashions in building changed then, as now. The first two camps had been built in earth and stone, with a dry stone wall overlooking the ditch, but for some reason or other this was not considered adequate, and the whole of the inner bank was rebuilt, probably in the first century B.C., in a new and most elaborate style. A bcx-shaped rampart was made, consisting of alternate layers of shale and timber lying within enclosing walls of dry stone. The whole of this was then deliberately fired, so that the interior of the rampart was turned into a solid mass of fused stone and clinker, creating what is known technically as a vitrified rampart. Defences of this construction were known throughout Gaul and Scotland and were the kind with which the Roman soldiers had to cope in Caesar's famous campaigns against the Gauls. These ramparts possessed great strength, and have survived intact to this day, some 2,000 years in all.
Even so, they in turn were not considered adequate, .for although they were never replaced they were themselves surrounded with yet another pair of banks and ditches running around the foot of the hill, with their own separate entrance in the southeast corner, which some of you will remember seeing when it was excavated in 1947. These outer defences were built as great mounds with sloping sides, and in the bottom of the ditches were driven sharp stakes sticking upwards, presumably as a defence against the horse-drawn chariots which were a feature of military armament on the eve of the Roman conquest. By the time the Brigantes came into open conflict with the Romans the original simple earthwork of their ancestors had been transformed into a multiple series of ditches and banks surrounding the whole hill, entrance to which was controlled through the two defended passage-ways at each end of the hill.
Castle Hill had thus become one of the largest and strongest hill-forts in the whole of the Brigantian country; as such it was almost certainly the stronghold of that Cartimandua whose coins were found near by at Honley.
Treachery and Rebellion
This first major episode in the history of Castle Hill was brought to an end in the exciting years of the Roman Conquest which followed the landing of Claudius in A.D. 43. The whole story will never be known because the details were contained in some lost papers of Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, was responsible for the Roman fort at Slack which marks the final subjugation of the Brigantes in the '80s of the first century A.D. Such fragments as can be pieced together make a fascinating story of intrigue, treachery and rebellion.
After an unsuccessful revolt against the might of the Roman legionaries in A.D. 49, the Brigantes, under the influence of their princess, Cartimandua, appear to have come to terms with the Romans. Indeed, Cartimandua played the part of a Quisling in that she is said to have betrayed the great British leader, Caratacus, to the Romans, a betrayal which may, alas, have actually taken piace at Castle Hill, To the credit of the Brigantes, however, they revolted against this treachery, and although the Romans succeeded in rescuing Cartimandua, the Brigantes, under their leader Venutius, whom the Romans praised as the greatest British general after Caratacus, were left in possession of their stronghold, until Agricola began his systematic campaign against them from his bases at Chester and York. The end was inevitable. Once the Roman garrisons were established at Slack and Castleshaw, the Brigantes were no longer able to defy the Roman might. Castle Hill was abandoned, and thereafter the Brigantes figure in history as occupants of the Roman town of Aldborough, and as Roman auxiliaries helping to defend the Roman Wall.
Under the Normans
For over a thousand years Castle Hill lay derelict, so that the ancient banks and ditches were overgrown and forgotten. In the twelfth century A.D. Castle Hill came into the possession of the Norman, Ilbert de Laci, who once again transformed it into a defended site. A great ditch was built at the west end separating what is now the site of the Victoria Tower from the Castle Hill Hotel, and over the turf-covered remains of the prehistoric ramparts was piled a high shale bank. The Norman garrison lived on the south-west end of the hill, within the shelter of their earthen banks, into which they dug the foundations of a very crude sort of building. So far as we can judge, their living conditions were exceedingly primitive, because men and animals appear to have shared the same shelter.
Hundreds of pieces of Norman pottery and large numbers of bones of deer and pig have come from the site of the building, the full extent of which has not yet been determined. We have also uncovered a rock-cut well belonging probably to this period, which it is hoped to bottom during this season's excavations. So far as we can judge at present, this Norman occupation came to an end somewhere about A.D. 1300, whereafter Norman and prehistoric remains alike have mouldered throughout the centuries. Even so, the range of history covered by Castle Hill extends over 1,600 years.
I regret that my old friend Dr. Woodhead did not survive to see the completion of our work, but I think we may claim to have fulfilled our mission in uncovering the history of what must be regarded as one of the most important ancient sites in the north of England.
The writer of this article, Professor W. J. Varley, M.A., Dr.Phil., F.S.A., is in charge of the important excavation work at Castle Hill. He has come specially from the Gold Coast, where he holds the Chair of Geography at the University, to resume the task which he began at Castle Hill in the year when the war broke out.