Hembury Iron Age hillfort, Payhembury

Timeline Iron Age

(KS2: Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age; Iron Age Hillforts, tribal kingdoms, farming, art and culture; also late Neolithic hunter-gatherers and early farmers)
(also KS2: the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain: successful invasion by Claudius and conquest)

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Try our downloadable lesson plans and resources packs all about Hembury Hillfort, produced by the Blackdown Hills AONB in conjunction with Devon’s Historic Environment Team. Just click on the links below. Feedback welcome!

KS1 one lesson plan

KS1 resources pack

KS2 four lesson plans

KS2 resources pack

Who made these massive ramparts and ditches? Why?

An aerial photograph of the hillfort in 1984, showing a small part of the ramparts – the rest are obscured by tree cover. © Frances Griffith, Devon County Council.
An aerial photograph of the hillfort in 1984, showing a small part of the ramparts – the rest are obscured by tree cover. © Frances Griffith, Devon County Council.

In the Iron Age huge forts were constructed on prominent hilltops and promontories. One of the most impressive in Devon is in Payhembury, with massive earth banks and ditches. It is unusual because there is also evidence of earlier use in the Stone Age, and later use – possibly by the Roman army.

The hillfort defences at Hembury began to be constructed in the early part of the Iron Age, but the triple line of huge rampart banks and ditches were built in a second phase. These enhanced the formidable natural defences – the site being at the end of a 240 metre high ridge. Two entranceways were probably heavily defended, as excavations revealed ‘post holes’ that once held the upright wooden stakes of a timber wall (or palisade). The entrances were also ‘inturned’ – curving inwards to enable the trapping and attack of unwanted visitors?

On the flatter ground inside the hillfort excavations revealed a ‘roundhouse’, 7 metres in diameter. Fragments of Iron Age pottery jars and bowls were decorated with wavy curvilinear and geometric designs (‘Glastonbury Ware’).

The earth defences we can see were built in the Iron Age, but excavations show us that this hilltop was used a long time before. Flint tools show that Mesolithic people were using this site, probably temporarily. It seems to have then been occupied by Neolithic people who dug a ‘causewayed’ (interrupted) ditch around the southern part and made fires and a circular hut, leaving behind the remains of hearths, pottery (from the local area and further away in Cornwall) and charred grains. Some of the pottery had grain impressions, suggesting cultivation of wheat.

After the Iron Age, there is evidence that the Romans used the site, building a new gateway using timber posts, and structures including a rectangular building identified during excavations. Finds included coins of Claudius and Nero, and Samian pottery dating to AD50-75, dating this activity approximately to the Roman conquest of Britain. Debris from metalworking might have been from a workshop mending military supplies. The Romans might have wanted to control this area because of the metal working industry in the area.

Click here to view Hembury Hillfort on a map


Iron Age images including reconstruction drawings of hillforts and roundhouses – English Heritage

Artefacts from Hembury can be viewed by searching for ‘Hembury’ in RAMM’s Collections Explorer website.

Iron Age Glastonbury Ware – a photograph from Ham Hill in Somerset

Mesolithic flints – examples from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

Neolithic settlement reconstruction drawing and houses – English Heritage

Key Questions

How do we know who built this hillfort?

Why was it built? And why here?

Where did the Iron Age people sleep? What did they eat and drink from? How do we know?

Who else has used this place? Was it for the same reasons?

How did building styles here change between the Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman period?

Activities and resources

Make a model Iron Age roundhouse (practical)

Build an Iron Age roundhouse (web)

Art projects can be based on Iron Age geometric patterns, e.g. the decoration on the Holcombe Mirror

Making grain (and other) impressions in clay to mimic Neolithic pottery – ancient grain does not normally survive but the impressions are preserved in the pottery.

Further Information

Further information on Hembury hillfort is available on Heritage Gateway.

There is a public right of way onto the southern part of the site. However please check access arrangements and health and safety issues yourself before visiting.

Information about hillforts is available in this Historic England Introduction to Heritage Assets.

Hembury hillfort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument meaning it is given legal protection by being placed on a list, or schedule. Further information on scheduled monuments is available from Historic England.