Maiden Castle, Iron Age Hill Fort

Aerial view of Maiden Castle today
Aerial view of Maiden Castle today

Maiden Castle is the largest Iron Age hill fort in Europe and covers an area of 47 acres. Still imposing after more than 2,000 years, the earthwork ramparts still present a formidable obstacle, some rising to a height of 6 metres. They are a fitting tribute to the skill, imagination and determination of the generations of Stone and Bronze Age people who built them.

It is not a castle in the traditionally accepted sense. It has no battlements or turrets but it was certainly a fortified area, chosen for its flat-topped, elevated, easily defended location. The term 'castle' is common in England for prehistoric earthwork sites, referring to the defensive earth banks and ditches.

The name 'Maiden' derives from the Celtic 'Mai Dun' which means 'great hill'. It is situated just 2 miles south of Dorchester in Dorset. in the south of England.

The complex of banks and ditches that surround the hillfort are the end result of many centuries of modification and enlargement during the Iron Age.
The complex of banks and ditches that surround the hillfort are the end result of many centuries of modification and enlargement during the Iron Age.
Neolithic activities on the hilltop included the construction of an enclosure and a barrow (drawing by Peter Dunn).
Neolithic activities on the hilltop included the construction of an enclosure and a barrow (drawing by Peter Dunn).

History

In the early Neolithic, around 4,000 BC, the hilltop was cleared of woodland and an oval enclosure of two segmented ditches was built on the eastern plateau.

In the late Neolithic period, around 3,000 BC, a massive long barrow, over 545m (1788ft) in length, was constructed and flint tools and other objects dating from that time have been found. Around 1200BC the site appears to have been abandoned, but the reason remains a mystery.

The basic layout of the fort was started during the first early Iron Age (800 - 550 BC) when the hillfort enclosed only the eastern end of the hill, with a single rampart and a V-shaped ditch. The original rampart was probably dumped earth, stone and chalk from the ditch, but a complex timber revetted wall flanked the entrances.

The final boundaries, as we see them today, were established during the Iron Age around 450 - 300 BC when the area of the fort was extended and the ramparts and ditches were enlarged. A much larger area of 19 hectares was enclosed including the western end of the hill, allowing more people to live within the defences. Three ditches were dug, the earth removed being used to build the ramparts. A wooden fence would have been built along the ramparts with wooden gates at the entrances. The entrances were not aligned in order to make it more difficult for opposing forces to gain entry.

The complex entrances meant that people entering and leaving the fort could be closely monitored. Outsiders would be easily identified and their purpose quickly established. They would also make any direct assault on the gateway difficult to undertake. Over 20,000 slingstones, small rounded pebbles from Chesil Beach on the south coast, have been found at the eastern entrance. They were stored in large pits ready to be thrown or slung at attackers.

These banks and ditches would certainly have been formidable obstacles to an attacker, but they may also have been built for the purposes of display, with their dramatic appearance symbolising the dominance and power of the community that occupied the hillfort.

At the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, Maiden Castle was inhabited by the Durotriges tribe. The battle to take the castle was a bloody one: the Romans under Vespasian finally victorious. Recent excavations have uncovered the bodies of 38 Iron Age warriors, buried with food and drink for their journey into the after life.

A Roman temple was built at Maiden Castle in the 4th century, the foundations of which can still be seen today. The fort was abandoned shortly after this time, although it may have been occupied during early Saxon times. It has certainly been deserted for the last 1400 years or so.

Domestic Life

It is often overlooked that the hillfort's main raison d'etre was to sustain and defend a community. It would be more accurate to call it a fortified village, rather than a castle.

The nature of the occupation of the hillfort changed considerably as the Iron Age progressed. At first, it was home to a small, self-sufficient community, but as time passed, Maiden Castle became the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset.

Excavations have discovered early Iron Age post-holes in square arrangements within the hillfort. These are thought to have been above-ground stores, used for keeping grain produced in the surrounding fields, perhaps to sustain the workforce occupied in building the huge ramparts.

At the height of its occupation, the fort was densely populated and there were many roundhouses. These had central hearths, large pits for storing grain and were often circled by drainage gullies. Various finds from the site show that activities such as textile production and metalworking were taking place there.

In the middle Iron Age, the layout of the interior of the hillfort was reorganised. Once randomly arranged houses were now built in regimented rows, with traffic guided along roads. This reorganisation suggests some control existed over social life within the fort.

Later in the late Iron Age, this organised system broke down, and the focus of the settlement became once again, the eastern end of the hillfort. At this time, there was increasing trade with the continent, and specialised industries such as metalworking were becoming very important at the site.

With the arrival of the Romans and their establishment of the nearby town of Dorchester, the hillfort was finally abandoned.

Maiden Castle by Roy Rainford
Maiden Castle by Roy Rainford | Source

Access to Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle is maintained by English Heritage and is open all year. At the site there is a large car park with information boards regarding the history of this extraordinary monument. As you climb the hill, the sheer size of the place and the huge effort it must have taken to build it, cannot fail to impress. If you're in the vicinity pay the site a visit. You'll be glad you did!

Location of Maiden Castle

A markerMaiden Castle -
Maiden Castle, Maiden Castle Rd, Winterborne Monkton, Winterborne Saint Martin, Dorset DT2 9, UK
[get directions]

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