Danebury Ring Hillfort – The Gates and Their Chronology

Text by Barry Cunliffe

Danebury Ring was originally provided with two gates – an east gate and a south­ west gate – but sometime during the life of the fort the latter was completely blocked. Both gates were examined to allow the history of the defences to be studied in finer detail.

The excavation of the east gate in 1970 enabled a number of sub-phases to be established. Even now after two thousand years of weathering and erosion the main entrance is an imposing structure (28-29) . The approach from outside the fort leads first to an outer gate, sited in forward-projecting outer hornworks. These earthworks enclose an entrance forecourt which protects the inner gate set in a gap in the main rampart and reached by an approach road flanked by a pair of inner hornworks of unequal size. What is visible today, of course, is the entrance in its most elaborate and developed form.

The excavation of the gates and the sectioning of the hornworks allowed seven main periods to be defined, several of which could be further divided into sub-phases (image 08 & Table 1). In this scheme it was not until period 5 that the hornworks, now so dominant, were built.

The earliest entrance at Danebury Ring (gate period 1) was a simple single carriageway gate, 4m (13ft) wide between the main gate posts, and set halfway along the entrance passageway. The rampart ends were revetted with fences brought forward to flank the ditch terminals, each ending in a cluster of post-holes representing some kind of foregate structure.

This arrangement would have had the advantage of preventing the animals, driven into the fort, from jostling each other into the ditches. The gate itself, whatever its exact form, was supported by two massive vertical timbers which must have been kept rigid and held apart by a cross beam, possibly supporting a gallery to enable defenders to cross from one rampart end to another. There is nothing to suggest that the gate was hinged nor is there any evidence of a portcullis type of arrangement but one or other of these methods could have been in operation. A simpler explanation, however, is that the actual gate was detachable and was lifted into position and secured by draw bars when the need for defence arose, in the interim being stored somewhere just inside the entrance.

Throughout gate period 1, timbers were replaced from time to time and a minimum of three phases can be distinguished. Gate period 1 and rampart period 1 are contemporary.

Table 01

Period Ramparts South-West gate East Gate
1 a-c Rampart 1 First gate Gates 1 a-c
2 a-b First gate Gates 2 a-b
c Possible fire Destruction by fire
d Erosion Gateless
3 a-b Rampart 2 Second gate and hornworks Gates 4 a-b
4 a-b Diminished use Gates 4 a-b
5 Rampart 3 Blocking Gate 5
6 a-b Gates 6 a-b
c Destruction by fire
7 – 8 Gateless

The second gate was constructed while the first rampart was still unmodified. At this stage the entrance was completely remodelled to become a broad dual carriageway, 9m (30ft) wide closed by double gates. Inside the gate line the entrance passage was extended back into the fort and lined with some kind of fencing to form an inner courtyard. After limited refurbishing the gate seen1s to have been burnt down (period 2c) and for a while the entrance passage was left without gates even though traffic continued to wear the roadway into a hollow (period 2d).

The third gate period is rather difficult to untangle but the wide passage was maintained and there is evidence of the replacement of timbers. This phase is best correlated with the first addition to the rampart (rampart 2).

The fourth period represents a complete remodelling, with the new double gate set well back in the entrance passage which was lengthened at the time. Two inner posts define the corners of the inner entrance courtyard. These, together with the gate posts themselves, may have supported a tower or raised platform above the gate to provide better protection as well as to impress the visitor with its dominating grandeur. The new, imposing gatehouse, set back at the end of an entrance passage, would be very much in keeping with the scale of the outer defensive works carried out at this time.

The fifth gate period saw the instigation of an even grander scheme and is best correlated with the large-scale refurbishment of the rampart (rampart 3) . The length of the entrance passage was dramatically increased by filling in the ends of the ditches and building forward-projecting earthworks out over them for a considerable distance to create a curved approach 50m (160ft) in length flanked throughout by near vertical dry walling of flint blocks.

At the head of the passage was a single gate 3m (10ft) wide. The construction of the inner hornworks created a defensive weakness in that they could be easily outflanked. To obviate this, work began on a pair of outer hornworks projecting forward from the fort ditch, to contain the entire inner gate and the space around it in claw-like pincers. The project was, however, abandoned in a partially completed state and the half-constructed outer hornwork banks were exposed for some time to the weather.

Gate period 6 saw the completion of the project more or less as planned but with the inner gate redesigned to become a dual carriageway with a gallery or tower above. There seems to have been a change of plan before the gate was finally completed. It remained in use for some while before it was burnt to the ground (period 6c).

The fire did not mark the total end of occupation, for traffic continued to flow into the fort and the road surface eroded into an even deeper hollow which scored through the now-defunct gate post-holes of the period 6 gate. At one stage, in order to arrest wear, the road surface was metalled with pebbles. This last phase is called gate period 7.

This brief summary is intended to give some idea of the complexity of the east entrance. How it functioned defensively is a matter for more detailed consideration in the next chapter.

The blocked south-western entrance was only partially examined, but sufficiently to enable the sequence to be established. Here it was possible to show that the initial gate, contemporary with the first ran1.part, was comparatively simple but it seems to have been rebuilt as a dual carriageway contemporary with rampart period 2. The particular interest of this gate is that it was provided at this stage with outer hornworks flanking the approach road (image 09).

Such elaboration is rare elsewhere in Britain at that time. The entrance seems to have declined in use until it was finally blocked when the rampart was refurbished in rampart period 3. At this time the entrance gap was filled with tons of rubble and soil and the causeway between the ditch ends was cut completely away (image 10). Only the hornworks beyond remained as a reminder of the former elaboration of the early entrance.

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