Visiting Maiden CastleFriday, April 9th, 2010
Maiden Castle, just two miles south of Dorchester town centre, is the largest Iron Age hill fort in Britain and, by some definitions, the largest in Europe. Maiden Castle is one of several ancient hill forts in the area, although many are either too small to be clearly seen or have been destroyed over time. These fortified hill-top settlements were constructed across Britain during the Iron Age period and the impressive example at Maiden Castle encompasses a massive 47 acres of imposing earthworks.
It’s probable that the name derives from the British Celtic mai-dun, meaning a “great hill”, with perhaps Castle added later to emphasise that the hill fort looks impregnable. Located just off the A345, visiting Maiden Castle is easy – there is plenty of free parking a short walk from the fort. This site of rich history really is essential viewing for any visitor to the area.
You will marvel at the immense size and the ability of our early ancestors to create and construct such an impressive settlement. Arial shots, available to view at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, show clearly the use of ringed embankments for protection and further illustrate the design and engineering skills of these early settlers in their creation of this famous landmark.
Maiden Castle History
Archaeological evidence has revealed human activity on the site much earlier than the main Iron Age construction we still see today. The earliest known use consists of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and bank barrow. Later on, during the Bronze Age around1800 BC, evidence shows the site was used for growing crops.
The Iron Age fort was originally constructed around 600 BC and occupied about 16 acres in size with a single, simple ditch and bank reaching a height of around 9 feet. Maiden Castle underwent some substantial changes around 450 BC, the enclosed area was nearly tripled in size and was enlarged to encompass an area of 47 acres with new defences rising to 11 feet and several new ditches in excess of 23 feet. At the same time, Maiden Castle’s defences were made more complex with the addition of further ramparts in the form of defensive walls and ditches for fortification. The inhabitants would have had a fantastic view of the surrounding area with defenders afforded the perfect lookout site for possible invaders.
The population fluctuated during the early Iron Age and at this time use remained primarily agricultural in nature. However in the late Iron Age period the site of Maiden Castle started to establish itself as a very important iron producer in Southern Britain. Although the local area had few natural resources to create their own metal, it is thought that there was a great deal of trade amongst the forts and towns of the area. Around 100 BC habitation at the hill fort went into decline and became focused at the eastern end of the site. Prior to the Roman invasion of 43 AD the territory was occupied by the Durotriges, a Celtic tribe – and even before the Roman conquest this tribal confederation were known to be issuing simple inscription free coinage.
Maiden Castle and the Romans
The Romans under Vespasian battled through Maiden Castle’s defences and defeated the inhabitants. Evidence of Roman settlement and influence in the area can be seen nearby at The Roman Town House at Colliton Park, Dorchester, one of the best preserved examples of a Roman Town House in the Country.
Maiden Castle appears to have been abandoned after the Roman conquest, although it is thought that the Romans may have had a military presence on the site. As you wander along the top of the hill you will see an area thought to be the location of a shrine dating from a 4th century AD temple. In the 6th century AD the hill top was entirely abandoned and was used only for agriculture during the medieval period.
Maiden Castle Rediscovered
During 1920-30 the history of Maiden Castle was rediscovered by archaeologists, with Mortimer Wheeler leading extensive archaeological excavations. He is credited with raising the historical Castle’s profile in the public’s imagination, relaying the exciting story of Maiden Castle and other Hill Forts in the area. In the past 20-25 years, efforts have been made to restore the site to its original state and to discover new facts about this historical location. A number of items found on or near Maiden Castle are on display at the Dorset County Museum.
More recent archaeological discoveries on the Ridgeway just a short distance from Maiden Castle include the remains of a Viking war grave dating between AD910 and AD1030 – it is the first physical evidence of these warriors in this part of Britain as well as the best example of a Viking burial pit in the country. It is thought these invaders met their grisly end at the hands of local tribes – perhaps even those living on or near the Maiden Castle site.
Today Maiden Castle is maintained by English Heritage and is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (a ‘nationally important’ archaeological site or historic building) .
Maiden Castle Video
Maiden Castle is open, all year round, for public visiting and entry is free. There is a car park at the bottom of the site and once at Maiden Castle you can enjoy panoramic views of Dorchester, Poundbury, and the surrounding countryside