Hembury Hillfort's Future Secured
The Devon Archaeological Society is the new owner of Hembury Hillfort, an outstanding prehistoric monument near Honiton, in Devon.
The Devon Archaeological Society (DAS) has purchased the site with some of its own funds, alongside substantial donations from some of its Trustees and members, and with a £73,047 grant from Historic England.
Hembury is Devon’s most spectacular Iron Age hillfort, positioned on a prominent spur of the Blackdown Hills. Its massive earthen ramparts and ditches date from the mid-first millennium BC. They create a prominent landmark with commanding views over the surrounding countryside.
When the hillfort was put up for sale on the open market in 2021, the most desirable outcome was that this site of national importance should come into the ownership of a suitable conservation body, so as to secure its long-term management and enable public access.
The purchase culminates nearly 100 years of the DAS’ close association with the hillfort, from early excavation to ongoing survey and site management. The Society was founded in 1928, and its first excavations were at Hembury the following year. These continued until 1935, directed by the pioneering archaeologist Miss Liddell (1890 to 1938). They revealed the long and fascinating story of the hillfort.
Our Society has been closely involved with the archaeology of this very special site for almost 100 years. Hembury played an important part in the development of archaeology in the 1930s, and recently archaeologists have been able to build on that pioneering work. We intend to continue the programme of research, as Hembury still has much to tell us.
Our Society is delighted to be able to secure the long-term protection of this magnificent site for both its history and its wildlife. The site is much valued by local people who use it as a place for quiet enjoyment. We are looking forward to working with our new neighbours and the wider local community to continue to care for this splendid monument, so that the future of Hembury can be ensured for future generations.
Hembury Hillfort survives in an exceptionally good condition. Its massive defences are well-defined and form a complete circuit. It offers valuable evidence about the lives, economy and landscape of Neolithic and Iron Age communities and the Roman military occupation of the South West.
The history of Hembury Hillfort
Hembury is an archaeological site of national importance and is protected as a scheduled monument. It is a ‘multivallate’ Iron Age hillfort, a rare monument of which only around 100 examples are recorded in England. It is vitally important to understanding the nature of settlement and social organisation in the Iron Age period and of major importance to Neolithic studies.
Excavations revealed that occupation began in the early Neolithic (New Stone Age), nearly 6,000 years ago. Two interrupted circuits of banks and ditches, a ‘causewayed enclosure’, separated the southernmost tip from the rest of the spur. One of Devon’s earliest farming communities may have used this for social and ceremonial gatherings. Recent dating work by Cardiff University has put the earliest use of the site at about 3700 BC.
The earthworks that can be seen today date from the Middle Iron Age (about the 3rd Century BC) but overlie an earlier Iron Age defensive circuit.
The Society’s excavations, and more recent geophysical survey undertaken by Dr Wilkes of Bournemouth University, shed new light on the Neolithic structure of the hillfort and showed that the interior contained circular houses and other structures, typical of the Iron Age. The finds from the Society’s excavations are looked after by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, where many of them can be seen on display.
Excavations by Professor Malcolm Todd in the 1980s confirmed more of the hillfort’s complex past. During the conquest of the South West around 50 AD, the Roman army re-occupied this strong defensive position for a short time before establishing a longer-lived fortification just west of present-day Honiton.
Hembury Hill is a very special place, combining natural beauty and historic significance. You can still stand on its Iron Age ramparts today and look out over the surrounding countryside, much as our ancestors would have done over two thousand years ago. Historic England is delighted to have played a part in securing its future.
Managing the site
Historic England and the DAS, along with many partners and dedicated volunteers, have been involved in the management of Hembury Hillfort for many years.
In 2008, Hembury was in poor condition with limited access, leading to its addition to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register. Subsequently, a Countryside Stewardship Scheme was agreed upon for the site, which secured funding from Natural England to support management works at the hillfort. Historic England also funded conservation works and other improvements, including new signage.
The Society and Bournemouth University carried out a geophysical survey of the entire interior of the monument in 2016, with funding from Devon County Council, to inform decisions about the site’s future management. This also produced crucial new information about the hillfort’s history.
Following years of careful conservation, Hembury Hillfort was removed from the Heritage at Risk register in 2018. The Society continues to organise working parties to control scrub growth and carry out archaeological fieldwork.
The DAS hopes to manage the site for its nature conservation and archaeological significance. To this end, it has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Devon Wildlife Trust, intending to secure joint management. The DAS will work with Devon County Council, the Devon Wildlife Trust, and the Blackdown Hills AONB Partnership to achieve this.
Historic England has recently awarded £15,000 for a three-year management agreement for the site. The funding is to support the DAS in regularly maintaining the hillfort, including managing vegetation, which can damage archaeological deposits, and maintaining a healthy grass cover.
Hembury Hillfort is open to visitors using public rights of way as long as they respect its archaeological and nature conservation importance.