Mass burial suggests massacre at Iron Age hill fort

media captionAnn Hall, Longstone Local History Group: "We think of it as a peaceful spot... what we found was a war grave"

Archaeologists have found evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare at a hill fort in Derbyshire.

A burial site contained only women and children - the first segregated burial of this kind from Iron Age Britain.

Nine skeletons were discovered in a section of ditch around the fort at Fin Cop in the Peak District.

Scientists believe "perhaps hundreds more skeletons" could be buried in the ditch, only a small part of which has been excavated so far.

Construction of the hill fort has been dated to some time between 440BC and 390BC, but it was destroyed before completion.

The fort's stone wall was broken apart and the rubble used to fill the 400m perimeter ditch, where the skeletons were found.

A second, outer wall and ditch had been started but not finished.

Iron Age warfare

The findings provide a rare insight into warfare in pre-Roman Britain, according to Dr Clive Waddington of Archaeological Research Services, who directed the excavations.

"There has been an almost accepted assumption amongst many archaeologists that hill forts functioned as displays of power, prestige and status and that warfare in the British Iron Age is largely invisible," he said.

"For the people buried at Fin Cop, the hurriedly constructed fort was evidently intended as a defensive work in response to a very real threat."

The skeletons are of women, babies, a toddler and a single teenage male. The archaeological team believe they were probably massacred after the fort was attacked and captured.

All were found in a 10m long section of ditch, the only part to be excavated so far. The ditch was 5m wide with 2m deep vertical edges and would have guarded a 4m high perimeter wall.

Animal bones, also found in the ditch, suggest the fort's inhabitants kept cattle, sheep and pigs. There were also remains from horses which indicate some of the fort's inhabitants were of high status.

The human and animal remains at Fin Cop are relatively well preserved, at least partly due to the limestone geology - the alkaline chemistry slows down decay of organic material including bone.

This may also help explain why similar evidence of Iron Age warfare has not been found at other sites; many hill forts are built on gritstone or sandstone whose acidic soil accelerate the decay of organic matter.

You can watch video of Dr Waddington discussing the find, filmed by TV company 360production.

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