Pilsdon Pen hillfort and associated remains


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Dorset (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
ST 41275 01290

Reasons for Designation

Small multivallate hillforts are defined as fortified enclosures of varying shape, generally between 1 and 5ha in size and located on hilltops. They are defined by boundaries consisting of two or more lines of closely set earthworks spaced at intervals of up to 15m. These entirely surround the interior except on sites located on promontories, where cliffs may form one or more sides of the monument. They date to the Iron Age period, most having been constructed and occupied between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD. Small multivallate hillforts are generally regarded as settlements of high status, occupied on a permanent basis. Recent interpretations suggest that the construction of multiple earthworks may have had as much to do with display as with defence. Earthworks may consist of a rampart alone or of a rampart and ditch which, on many sites, are associated with counterscarp banks and internal quarry scoops. Access to the interior is generally provided by one or two entrances, which either appear as simple gaps in the earthwork or inturned passages, sometimes with guardrooms. The interior generally consists of settlement evidence including round houses, four and six post structures interpreted as raised granaries, roads, pits, gullies, hearths and a variety of scattered post and stake holes. Evidence from outside numerous examples of small multivallate hillforts suggests that extra-mural settlement was of a similar nature. Small multivallate hillforts are rare with around 100 examples recorded nationally. Most are located in the Welsh Marches and the south-west with a concentration of small monuments in the north-east. In view of the rarity of small multivallate hillforts and their importance in understanding the nature of settlement and social organisation within the Iron Age period, all examples with surviving archaeological remains are believed to be of national importance.

The small multivallate hillfort on Pilsdon Pen is one of four overlooking the western end of the Marshwood Vale providing an unusual concentration within a distance of 10km. It is a well-preserved example of its class and is known from partial excavation to contain archaeological deposits providing information about Iron Age society, economy and environment. Bowl barrows, the most numerous form of round barrow, are funerary monuments dating from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, with most examples belonging to the period 2400-1500 BC. They were constructed as earthen or rubble mounds, sometimes ditched, which covered single or multiple burials. There are over 10,000 surviving bowl barrows recorded nationally (many have already been destroyed) occurring across most of lowland Britain. The barrows within the hillfort on Pilsdon Pen, although disturbed by medieval agricultural practices, are comparatively well-preserved examples of their class and will contain archaeological deposits providing information relating to burial rites, society and environment at the time of their construction. A warren is an area of land set aside for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares in order to provide a constant supply of fresh meat and skins. Although the hare is an indigenous species, the tradition of warren construction and use dates from the 12th century, following the introduction of rabbits into England from the continent. Warrens usually contain a number of purpose-built breeding places known as pillow mounds or rabbit buries, which were intended to centralise the colony and make catching the animals easier, whether using nets, ferrets or dogs. The mounds are usually surrounded by ditches and contain underlying channels or are situated on sloping ground to facilitate drainage. The interior of the mound may also contain nesting places constructed of stone slabs or cut into the underlying subsoil or bedrock. A typical warren may contain between one and forty pillow mounds and occupy an area of up to 600ha. Many warrens were enclosed by a bank, hedge or wall intended to contain and protect the stock. Larger warrens might include living quarters for the warrener who kept charge of the site. The warren within the hillfort at Pilsdon Pen, despite the removal by excavation of some features, includes several pillow mounds which are comparatively well-preserved examples of their class and the square enclosure provides a more unusual arrangement of mounds. Partial excavation has provided some information about their internal structure and they will contain archaeological deposits providing information about post-medieval rabbit husbandry and contemporary environment.


The monument includes a small multivallate hillfort, located at the southern end, the highest part, of a ridge known as Pilsdon Pen which projects out into Marshwood Vale, 650m south west of Higher Newnham Farm. This is one of four hillforts overlooking the western end of the Marshwood Vale, within a distance of 10km, the nearest being situated 2.5km to the east. These other hillforts are the subjects of separate schedulings. Within the hillfort are the remains of two Late Neolithic to Bronze Age burial mounds, a medieval cultivation system, and a post-medieval rabbit warren. A cultivation terrace, or lynchet, of medieval date lies on the steep south eastern flank of the hill outside the hillfort. Partial excavations were carried out between 1964 and 1971 by P Gelling, and in 1982 by the National Trust, prior to reinstatement of the earlier excavation trenches. The earthworks were fully surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1995. The hillfort has two phases of defences. The identifiable remains of the earlier, probably incomplete, defences are found at the northern end of the site. They include two irregular, low and spread banks, up to 7m wide and 1.2m high, either side of a ditch, 15m wide and 2.6m deep. Central to these defences is an entrance, 14.5m wide, flanked by inturns of the inner rampart, 15m and 30m long. No dating evidence was recovered during the partial excavation of these features. The later hillfort is a single entrance, oval-shaped enclosure, about 2.8ha in size, protected, for much of its circuit, by three concentric ramparts, reduced to two on the north western and south eastern sides. The inner rampart is 18m wide, about 6m high externally and an average of 1.7m high internally, with a sharply cut ditch 15m wide and up to 3m deep. The middle rampart mostly runs parallel to the inner one but diverges on the north west side creating two level areas, possibly due to the presence of earlier earthworks. Midway along the western side it splits to create two, and for a short distance three features embellishing the western entrance. For most of its length there is an external ditch, a maximum of 15m wide and 3m deep. The outer rampart is a substantial counterscarp bank, 13m wide and 1.2m high on the lip of the outer ditch, and has been partly removed by quarrying and ploughing or disturbed by later field banks. The defences have been damaged and modified by the later field banks constructed along the inner ditch on the east and the outer ditch on the north and west sides, and by animal burrowing and stone robbing. Of the four gaps in the defences only the western one is original. It is marked by a hollowed area immediately within the hillfort, a passageway 2.2m wide in the inner rampart and a causeway across the inner ditch and a passageway through the middle rampart. Beyond the outer rampart is a scarp 2.4m high blocking a direct approach to the entrance. Excavation by Gelling identified a short section of metalled surface running obliquely into the hillfort's interior. In 1982 further excavation in the passageway confirmed the trackway and a lack of post holes in the gateway area. The excavations suggested a short single period of occupation in the first century BC. Round houses and pits were revealed in the areas excavated but the interior of the hillfort appeared to be relatively undeveloped. The finds included hundreds of sling stones, domestic pottery, fragments of crucible used in metal working, a gold coin of Gallo-Belgic type, and Roman objects including a ballista bolt. Two Late Neolithic to Bronze Age bowl barrows lie within the hillfort at the south western end. The southern one is 9m in diameter and 0.55m high and the second barrow, 35m to the north is 15m in diameter and 0.8m high. Both are surrounded by 2m wide quarry ditches from which material for their construction was derived. Both had been spread slightly by the later medieval cultivation, though they survive to 0.2m deep. Within the hillfort there is evidence of broad ridge and furrow cultivation of medieval or later date. The ridges are an average of 3.5m wide and 0.2m high and run along the ridge in a north west-south easterly direction. The rabbit warren includes six pillow mounds overlying the ridge and furrow. Three short ones, located towards the south eastern end of the hillfort, are between 11m and 15m long, 6m wide and 0.7m high. Three long pillow mounds, between 33m and 41m in length, 7m-8m wide and between 0.5m and 1.1m high with flat tops, are situated near the centre of the hillfort. All the mounds are partially surrounded by drainage ditches, up to 3m wide. Two of the long mounds form the western and southern sides of a square enclosure. Two other pillow mounds would originally have formed the northern and eastern sides of the enclosure but these, together with the western mound, were almost completely removed by excavation. The 1982 reinstatement reconstructed the western mound and created a bank 3m wide and 0.5m wide on the northern and eastern sides. Only the southern linear mound remains, although partially obscured by excavation spoil. This is 40m long, an average of 7m wide and 0.5m high, with a short length of quarry ditch on the northern side of it, visible as a depression about 3m wide and 0.2m deep. A network of square-section gullies integral with the banks and mounds were found and the main entrance to the warren appears to have been at the northern corner of the enclosure. Originally the enclosure was interpreted as an Iron Age religious enclosure but the 1982 excavations suggested a more fitting explanation linked to post- medieval rabbit husbandry. In 1804 orders were given to establish a fire beacon at Pilsdon, presumably on the Pen, but no detail of its form was provided and its exact location is unknown. Hutchins writing in 1860 reports an early 18th century account by Coker in which he mentions a lodge on the top which acted as a landmark, visible from both land and sea. The form and function of this building cannot be determined on present evidence. It may have housed the warrener or may have been more of a folly structure. Its location is not known but is likely to have been in the region of the triangulation point, where it may have been visible at sea. All fence, gate posts and the slurry hydrant are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
An Inventory of the Historical Monuments of Dorset: Volume 1 , (1952), 179-80
Hutchins, J, A History of the County of Dorset, (1860)
Probert, S, Pilsdon Pen hillfort, Dorset, (1995)
Probert, S, Pilsdon Pen hillfort, Dorset, (1995)
Warne, C, Dorsetshire: Its Vestiges, Celtic, Roman, Saxon and Danish, (1865)
Gelling, P S, 'Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society' in Excavations on Pilsdon Pen, Dorset 1964-1971, , Vol. 43, (1977), 263-286
Gelling, P S, 'Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society' in Excavations on Pilsdon Pen, Dorset 1964-1971, , Vol. 43, (1977), 263-286
Gelling, P S, 'Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society' in Excavations on Pilsdon Pen, Dorset 1964-1971, , Vol. 43, (1977), 263-286
Selkirk, A, 'Current Archaeology' in Pilsdon Pen, , Vol. 14, (1969), 78-81
Thackray, D W R, 'Procs Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society' in Excavations At Pilsdon Pen Hillfort, , Vol. 114, (1982), 178-179


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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