Maiden Castle (Dorset)
Among the largest and most complex of Iron Age hillforts in Europe, Maiden Castle’s huge multiple ramparts, up to 6m high, enclose an area equivalent to 50 football pitches (18 ha), protecting several hundred residents. Excavations in the 1930s and 1980s revealed the site's 4,000-year history, reaching its apogee at a time of inter-tribal rivalry in the 2nd century BC. They also produced evidence of an extensive late Iron Age cemetery. Many of the burials had suffered horrific injuries in attacks or skirmishes, perhaps at the time of the Roman invasion. The name maiden was once believed to derive from the Brythonic mai dun, meaning great hill.
The site is maintained by English Heritage, and information panels guide you around the hillfort and illustrate its long history.
Open at all reasonable times of the day, all year round.
History to the present day
Excavations at the site have dated construction of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure back to around 4000 BC. An extensive bank and ditch as well as a bank barrow burial mound are evident from this period at the eastern end.
However most of the works at the site date from around 450 to 300 BC, when an earlier Iron Age hillfort dating to c. 600 BC was extended and enlarged with three new ditch-and-bank earthworks built creating the main fortifications in a set of three concentric rings with offset entrance points. The castle is very big.
Centuries after its construction the fort was probably occupied by the Durotriges, a Celtic tribe at the time of the Roman invasion. The site may have been attacked and invested by the 2nd and the 8th legion under Vespasian in AD 43. Mortimer Wheeler created a vivid account of the fall of the hill fort in his report following the excavations of 1934-1937. Later examination of his records by Niall Sharples has largely discounted this interpretation and it is no longer thought that the fort was besieged or violently taken by the Romans.
20th century English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) visited the area and later wrote Mai-Dun, a symphonic rhapsody evoking something of the prehistoric character of the fortifications, the people who lived there, and their lifestyle.
The Romans occupied the site but concentrated their efforts in the area around Durnovaria (now Dorchester) and the nearby Poundbury Hill. There was a large scale reconstruction of the site, just before AD 400. A small Romano-British temple was built in the eastern half of the hill fort during the late Roman pagan revival and the denfences were refurbished to form it temenos. The temple adjoined the site of an abandoned, but apparently remembered, circular Iron Age shrine and seems to have been used for the worship of a number of gods including Diana, Minerva and Taurus Trigaranus. It consisted of the usual sanctuary or cella surrounded by an ambulatory. A small rectangular structure, perhaps for the priest, stood alongside. The temple did not last long and the site was abandoned by the Romans soon afterwards. It was not re-occupied and remained deserted from then on.