NGR: SY 6688 8845. The spectacular and impressive Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle, with its deep defensive banks, ditches and ramparts, is to be found one and a half miles to the southwest of Dorchester, in Dorset, on Maiden Castle Road. Said to be the largest hill-fort complex in Europe, and, the largest of its kind in Britain. It covers an area of around 47 acres or 190202,252 metres, roughly halfway between the town of Dorchester and the village of Winterbourne Monkton. The hill-fort was most probably built in the middle of the 1st century B.C. and was still being settled well into the Roman period. In the 4th century A.D. a Celtic temple was apparently built at the eastern side of the fort, and inside the hill-fort there is a late Neolithic long barrow, and a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, which dates back to around 3,500 B.C. It would seem that there were other forts here built in stages at different periods back in prehistory, but, the main fort (which we see here today) was built over them and very little can now be seen of those earlier hill-forts and associated settlements. In 1865 the Wiltshire-born Antiquarian Edward Cunnington (1825-1916) carried out the first Archaeological excavations at Maiden Castle and, in more recent times, archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976) excavated at the site in 1936. The hill-fort is in the care of English Heritage.
AA Treasures of Britain (1968) tells us that: “This is perhaps the best-known hill-fort in England. Extensively excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the long and varied history of the site is well established. Concealed below the rampart of the first Iron Age defences were those of a Neolithic causewayed camp of about 10 acres. Towards the end of the Neolithic period, an enormous long barrow with quarry ditches was built on the hill-top and its line kinks where it crosses the defences of the earlier camp. The first Iron Age hill-fort, of 15 acres, occupied the eastern part of the hill. This comparatively insignificant fort was enlarged and remodelled again and again until, in the days of the last generation before the Roman conquest, the defences received their final refurbishing. The fort was one of the settlements reduced by Vespasian’s 2nd Legion and, outside the east gate, the hastily buried skeletons of the inhabitants killed in the fight were found. Doubtless the chief oppidum (settlement) of the local tribe, the Durotriges, it was then superseded by Dorchester (Durnovaria), the Roman cantonal town, in the valley below. In the second half of the 4th century, a Romano-Celtic temple and priest’s house, the foundations of which can still be seen, were built in the eastern part of the fort. It was near the gates of this hill-fort that great reserves of slingstones were found, proving that, in later Iron Age times, the sling was an important weapon.”
Odhams — Romantic Britain (1945) says of Iron-Age hill-forts: “By far the greatest and most imposing of all these earthworks are those of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester. Recent excavations have established that here, 4,000 years ago, was a town covering about fifteen acres and enclosed within triple entrenchments. This Neolithic settlement was apparently raided about 1,900 B.C. Then for fifteen centuries the site was abandoned. Towards the end of the fifth century B.C. it was again occupied and developed into a town with upwards of 4,000 inhabitants. The innermost rampart was given a stone parapet and entrance was gained through a passage between massive stone walls. Inside the great gateway there was a sentry-box on each side. Nearby was a pit containing thousands of sling stones stored ready for defence. Only in Roman times was the place finally abandoned for a site now occupied by modern Dorchester. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Britain, is evidence of the long drawn out centuries and of the labour and life of our prehistoric forefathers.”
Harold Priestley writing in 1976 has the following to say about this hill-fort: “One of the best-known and most remarkable sites in the whole of the British Isles, the eastern part of the hill on which Maiden Castle stands was first enclosed by neolithic peoples as a causewayed camp. Overlying this were found the remains of a very long barrow, 1800 ft (548 m), at the eastern end of which were discovered the remains of a man whose body had been hacked in pieces after death.
“After about 1800 BC the site became uninhabited. The first Iron Age ramparts were erected round about 300 BC and enclosed 13 acres (6 ha) on the E side of the hill. More than a century later the ramparts were extended to cover the whole 45 acres (18.2 ha), and within the fort a large population had its permanent home.
“Early in the 1st century BC new immigrants rebuilt the ramparts, adding an outer bank and ditch, remodelling the entrances and creating the complicated ways between the strong points round the gates. Between 43 and 47 AD during the Roman advance to the W, the fort was stormed by the Romans, the E gate destroyed and later the population was re-housed in the Roman town of Durnovaria (Dorchester). In the 4th century, at the E end, a Celtic-type temple was erected and a small house adjoined it. From the air the fortifications may be seen in all their complexity.”
Bill Anderton (1991) says of Maiden Castle: “This is a huge prehistoric earthwork near Dorchester covering an area of 120 acres, with an average width of 460 metres and length of 900 metres. It is impractical to think that this ‘hillfort’ was originally conceived as a defensive position – it has been estimated that 250,000 men would have been required to defend it. Many of these hillforts have two entrances, one north of east and the other south of west, suggesting some form of ceremonial related to the sun. The labyrinthine east and west entrances may have been built as a way for processional entry by people of the Neolithic era. After AD 367, the Romans built a temple within the enclosure, whose remains are still clearly visible.”
Odhams — Historic Britain (1956) adds that: “Maiden Castle in Dorset is the largest and the most elaborate of prehistoric earthworks in Britain. It is defended by triple earthen ramparts and ditches, still much in evidence. The fortified east entrance is shown in this picture (left), which also gives an idea of the nature of the defences. These originally had vertical sides, each bank and ditch forming a real obstacle to an attacking enemy. Maiden Castle was a tribal centre and was at the height of its power in the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era. It continued to be occupied during part at least of the Roman domination of Britain.”
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
AA Treasures of Britain, And Treasures Of Ireland, Drive Publications Limited, London,
Anderton, Bill, Guide To Ancient Britain, W. Foulsham & Co.Ltd., Slough, Berkshire, 1991.
Odhams — Historic Britain, Odhams Books, Feltham, Middlesex, 1956.
Odhams — Romantic Britain, The National Heritage Of Beauty History And Legend, Odhams Press Limited, London, 1945.
Priestley, Harold, The Observer’s Book of Ancient & Roman Britain, Frederick Warne & Co Ltd., London, 1976.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2022.