Traditionally prehistorians have drawn a distinction between two different types of Iron Age landscapes in the West Midlands region. In the west the presence of a dense concentration of hillforts along the Welsh Marches was thought to form part of a ‘hillfort zone’, which extended from the chalk downlands of Wessex to the mountains of North Wales (Varley 1948, Cunliffe 1991). The presence of these monuments was taken to be indicative of a particular form of social organisation; namely a quasi-feudal system based around a small martial elite, which until the 1970s was thought to have invaded the region from the lands to the south and south-west (Stanford 1971, 1972 Savory 1976). Within the Marches a number of commentators extended this model by drawing direct parallels between the Iron Age and the Norman periods – analogies which appeared to be strengthened by the similarities between the distributions of hillforts and motte and baileys along the border. With the collapse of the Invasion Hypothesis this model was re-framed by those drawing upon, amongst other things, central place theory and the evolutionary anthropologies of Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service. As a result, hillforts were now thought to form the principal settlements of a series of redistributive chiefdoms (e.g. Cunliffe 1984, Gent and Dean 1986).
As one moves eastwards out of Shropshire and Herefordshire the number of hillforts tails off. Because of the primacy that was assigned to these monuments, this pattern was, until comparatively recently, thought to be indicative of a gradual fall in population density. This impression also appeared to be reinforced by Fox’s (1952) theories regarding the vegetational history of this part of the Lowland Zone. A combination of aerial survey and developer-funded work is increasingly demonstrating that the apparent dearth of sites in these areas is partly an artefact of the history of archaeological research. None-the-less, as a number of speakers pointed out at the first two seminars in this series, the impression that the eastern side of the region remained very sparsely inhabited throughout later prehistory is proving hard to dislodge in some quarters.
The increase in the quantity of available data, together with a number of recent trends within Iron Age studies, presents us with a timely opportunity to review this scheme and to develop an agenda for future research. For instance, whilst we now have more material to work with we are also beginning to consider it in its own terms, rather than interpreting it with a rearward glance towards Wessex. Deconstructing the theory behind the models briefly outlined above will be an important area for future work. However, in this paper I intend to focus primarily upon the material evidence itself, reassessing its significance and its limitations and highlighting a number of possible ways forward.