Getting Lost with the Ancient Hillfort Atlas

Earlier this year, a database entitled The Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland was made available online but, unfortunately, this wasn’t without some controversy. In particular, a lot of people were unhappy with the term ‘hillfort’ because it’s quite an inaccurate term to use for many of the sites identified in the Atlas, most of which were believed to have a ritualistic/social nature rather than a military/defence one.

The Hill of Tara: At least the Atlas got one site correct. There was a hillfort here at one stage.

Funded though through the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Atlas was established through a project facilitated by University College Cork, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford. The information gathered for it was collected by over a hundred volunteers who visited the sites and input the data gathered. Over time, the plan is to allow the Atlas to be updated by volunteers who upload their own images and text.

Like most projects there are pros and cons with the ‘Hillfort Atlas/Database’. The ‘pro’ is that it identifies where many ancient sites are located and by making this information available online, it encourages people to go and interact with them – certainly a positive outcome.

The ‘con’ is that although the ancient sites are identified, there’s very little information provided on the site and much of that (from the database title down) is misleading and encourages misinterpretation. In addition, there very little actual data available on the website apart from the locations, a minimal explanation of hillforts, and links to a few related (university) books.

Essentially, the Atlas project team seem to be saying

“Look, here’s a map of old sites we’re generically going to call “hillforts” – even if they’re not. Also, here’s a list of books you might like to read if you want to try and make sense of it. Good luck with all that!”

Generally speaking, therefore, the Atlas is all a bit of a half-assed job and one gets the impression the universities only carried it out to obtain some easy funding from the AHRC or as a cheap publicity gimmick. From the final product, there certainly doesn’t appear to have been any attempt to:

  • define the project in a way that would assemble some meaningful data
  • analyse and present that information to the public in a way that might actually have been useful

The Hillfort Atlas itself can be found here: The Atlas

Good luck. You’ll probably need it.