The screams must have been unbearable.
High on the peaks of the Pennines, a terrified group of women, teenagers and children sat huddled in the half-finished ditches and walls of their hill fort, surrounded by gloating faces.
The men were missing, either killed in battle or taken to one side to be pressed into military service or sold for slaves by their captors.
But that left the less valuable women and children to be disposed of. Any pleas for clemency fell on death ears.
Challenging find: Archaeologists found nine skeletons at the fort in Fin Cop in Derbyshire and believe it is evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare
Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women, babies and children were stabbed or strangled, stripped of possessions and tossed into the ditch that encircled the fort.
Then their attackers toppled a 13ft-high limestone wall over their broken bodies, covering the mass grave with a litter of rocks and soil.
The full story of that gruesome day on Fin Cop in Derbyshire 2,400 years ago, and the reason why two Iron Age clans came to blows, will never be uncovered.
But the discovery of nine bodies thrown carelessly in a ditch is challenging some widely-held views about life in Iron Age Britain and whether life before the Romans was quite as peaceful as some academics like to claim.
It has become fashionable to interpret Iron Age hill forts, the 3,000 circles of banks and ditches found across the country, as farming settlements or status symbols - the prehistoric equivalent of Tudor castles and 19th century stately homes.
But the team who found the bodies believe they also served a brutal and more violent purpose at a time when Britain was divided into squabbling, warfaring tribal chiefdoms.
Dr Clive Waddington, of Archaeological Research Services which uncovered the bones, believes there could be 'dozens or hundreds' more bodies buried on the site.
Radiocarbon dating shows that the Fin cop hill fort was built around 400BC, but was destroyed before completion.
Dr Waddington's team, assisted by hundreds of volunteers and local schoolchildren, uncovered the bodies in two sections of a ditch, created as part of the fort's defences.
They included four babies, one who was unborn, a two-year-old toddler, a teenage boy and three adults, two of whom were definitely women and one whose sex is unknown.
The bodies had been thrown in the ditch and covered with rubble from a stone wall.
'We excavated ten metres but there is 400metres of ditch around the site, and the implication is that could be dozens - if not hundreds - of bodies there,' said Dr Waddington.
There were no personal possessions, suggesting the captors removed any valuables.
Dr Waddington believes they were massacred after the hill fort was attacked and captured by a rival chieftain.
There are clues that the hill fort was created in a hurry and that the victims knew they were at risk.
'The ditches and fort were never finished. They had started to make a second wall but that wasn't completed,' he said.
'You can tell that it was a hasty thing - they were trying to rapidly build it and it was not done on time.'
Dr Waddington said archaeologists have increasingly interpreted hill forts as status symbols, not military defences.
'But we know from Classical sources that the British were warlike,' he said.
|Ongoing dig: Radiocarbon dating shows that the Fin cop hill fort was buil |
around 400BC, but was destroyed before completion
First century accounts reveal that Britain was famed for its export of corn, dogs and slaves.
'It's true that some of the hill forts don't make sense as strongholds because they are not built at the top of hills, or because they are overlooked. But that probably means there is truth in both views.
'The early castles of the 11th and 12th centuries were strongholds, but the later Tudor ones, after the invention of gunpowder, were statements of status. The same is likely to be true of the Iron Age.'
Animal bones in the ditch show they farmed cattle and pigs and kept horses. The Fin Cop fort was probably part of a chain of related communities in the Peak District.
The lack of any skeletons at other hill forts may be due to geology. Bones decay slowly at Fin Cop because the soil is alkaline.(dailymail.co.uk)