Hillfort: OS Grid Reference – SU 1764 6396
Also Known as:
- Martin’s Hill
Archaeology & History
The second highest of Wiltshire’s prehistoric camps or hillforts, Martinsell Hill was described as early as the 13th century as ‘Mattelsore’ and was known in local dialect and literary forms as variants around the word mattels, until the 16th century, when the title became altered in literature and for the first time became known as ‘Martinshall’ (and variants thereof), which has stuck ever since. As the etymologists Gover, Mawer & Stenton (1939) proclaimed,
“the first element (mattels, PB) must be associated with the old english name for the camp which stands on top of it: the Mætelmesburg of the Pewsey charter” —
Which the authors think derived from “Mætelmesora, i.e., ‘Mæþelhelm’s bank'”, being the name of a tribal leader or elder who gave his name to the hill upon which the fort was built. Margaret Gelling echoes the sentiment in her Place-Names in the Landscape, but we must keep in mind that such derivation is still a quite speculative etymology and one which doesn’t seem to be able to be proven (as yet!).
The hillfort and its remains were described in some detail in the second volume of Colt Hoare’s classic Ancient Wiltshire (1819: 107), where he wrote:
“Martin’s Hill or Martinshal Hill is in North Wilts what Long Knoll near Maiden Bradley is in South Wilts, ‘collis longe spectabilis’. This elevated point commands a most advantageous prospect of the rich vale that separates the northern and southern districts of our county, , and is rendered interesting to the antiquary by an extensive earthenwork that crowns the summit of the hill. Its form resembles an oblong square on all sides, except towards the east, where it bends inward in order to humour the natural shape of the hill. Its area, which is in tillage, comprehends thirty-one acres; and as several entrances have been made through the ramparts for the convenience of agriculture, it is difficult to ascertain on which side were the original approaches to the camp. This hill, in its formation, presents a peculiarity rather contrary to the usual system of nature, by rising in height towards the east, where a bold and tremendous precipice of smooth turf shelves down from the summit to the base of the hill. This eminence is more remarkable for the rich and extensive prospect which it affords than for the plan of its entrenchments, which consists of a single vallum and fosse. Not having discovered by digging any certain marks of ancient populations within its area, I am inclined to think that it may be considered as an asylum to which the Britons, who were very numerous in its environs, sent their families and herds in times of danger: the single vallum and ditch prove its British origin, and the great extent of its area seems to warrant this conjecture.”
This aint a bad assumption for a fella who wrote this 200 years ago without the aid of excavation or modern archaeocentric analysis. But we can see that Hoare was utilizing that dying virtue of common sense here, and find that much of what he said remains the echoed narrative of modern archaeologists who, I believe, still aint done a detailed excavation on the site themselves. (weird for down South!) Later in the 19th century, when the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) visited and wrote about the hillfort, he added little to Hoare’s earlier words. And the descriptive narrative of the site remained roughly the same (Massingham’s intriguing ascriptions aside!) even after a small excavation was undertaken in 1907, which found very little. Hippisley Cox (1927) passed this way in his fine travelogue of ancient roads and trackways in Wessex, describing the enclosed top of this hill as
“the site of a complete neolithic settlement, including dew-ponds, a cattle compound, a flint quarry, lynchetts, dicthes of defence and deep cattle tracks formed by much going and coming of beasts from the valley.”
He may have been right! In more recent times Geoffrey Williams (1993) describes the Martinsell hillfort, which again only gives slightly more info than Colt Hoare’s 1819 narrative. The site covers 32 acres in size, is roughly rectangular in form, measuring roughly 330 yards (302m) across east to west, and 480 yards (439m) north to south. There appears to be at least one entrance on its northeastern edge.
What seems to be a survival of prechristian sun lore is found in one or two of the events that used to happen upon and around Martinsell. A number of local history books give varying descriptions of the events here, but Devereux and Thomson (1979) condense the information nicely, telling us that
“The camp seems to have been a focus for curious Palm Sunday ‘games’ in past centuries, one of which involved a line of boys standing at intervals from the base to the summit of the hill. Using hockey sticks, they then proceeded to knock a ball in succession up the hill to the top. Another activity was the throwing of oranges down the hill slopes with boys going headlong after them. Evene more strangely, local youths used to slither down the escarpment on horses skulls.”
Mythographer and writer Michael Dames (1977) thought that such festive activities on and around the hill related to remnants of ancient goddess worship here.
In Paul Devereux & Ian Thomson’s (1979) ley hunter’s guide, the Martinsell Hill site stands at the beginning of a ley, which then runs northwest for more than seven miles, eventually ending at the well known causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill — but not before passing by the Avebury stone circle and several prehistoric tombs on route. This ley is a simple alignment between sites (as the ‘discover’ of leys, Alfred Watkins described them) and has nothing to do with the modern contrivance of energy lines.
…to be continued…
- Bradley, A.G., Round about Wiltshire, Methuen: London 1948.
- Dames, Michael, The Avebury Cycle, Thames & Hudson: London 1977.
- Devereux, Paul & Thomson, Ian, The Ley Hunter’s Companion, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
- Gomme, Alice B., “Folklore Scraps from Several Localities,” in Folklore Journal, 20:1, 1909.
- Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Wiltshire, Cambridge University Press 1939.
- Harding, D.W., The Iron Age in Lowland Britain, RKP: London 1974.
- Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of North Wiltshire, Lackington, Hughes, Mavor & Jones: London 1819.
- Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathan Cape: London 1926.
- Partidge, T.B., “Wiltshire Folklore,” in Folklore Journal, 26:2, 1915.
- Smith, A.C., A Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society 1885.
- Williams, Geoffrey, The Iron Age Hillforts of England, Horace Books 1993.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian