nr. Dorchester, Dorset, England
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Maiden Castle derives its name from "Mai dun", the "big hill"   see also:   PLACE NAMES.

The two chalk hillocks on which Maiden Castle was built stand like an island above the flat land between the river Frome and the South Winterborne stream.


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Lacking either the manpower or the technology, the Neolithic inhabitants of Maiden Castle occupied only the eastern end of the present fortification.

In about 3,000 BC they cut a ditch to seperate the unused hillock and used the spoils from their excavations to create a rampart behind the ditch. They may also have dug further ditches to make the remaining sides of the eastern hillock more secure. The "causeway camp" which they thus created probably covered some fifteen acres.

In digging the ditch(es) into the chalk, the builders of the ramparts uncovered the flint nodules within it which they utilised to manufacture their stone tools - axes, knives and scrapers for animal hides - all have been recovered from the ditches of Maiden Castle; in digging the defensive works, they were also quarrying for flints.

Towards the end of their occupation of the site, these Neolithic people constructed a huge tomb across the hillocks, a "long" or "bank" barrow from the centre of the occupied eastern hillock to the far end of the west. This huge burial mound measured sixty feet across and was fifteen hundred feet - a quarterof a mile - in length. Its height can only be inferred from the height of other similar barrows - about ten feet. It is estimated that the consruction of this long barrow entailed moving a million cubic feet of earth weighing some 100,000 tons - a large untertaking in our mechanized times, an awesome task using only antlers as spades.

A burial under what would have been the eastern end of the long barrow has been excavated but, although pre-Celtic, it is believed to have been later than the barrow itself. The skeleton uncovered was that of a male aged about thirty and measuring about 5 feet 4 inches heigh - bearing in mind that the population has become progressively taller even since more recent times such as the Middle Ages, he may have even been tall for his time.

The skeleton may now be found in a reconstruction of the grave at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Before his internment, the man's arms and legs had been brocken and three holes smashed into his skull.

Shortly after the time of the burial on the eastern hillock, Maiden Castle was abandoned. It is not known why the people of the broze Age chose to ignore this site but it may be possible that a change in climatic conditions made it more difficult to farm the chalklands. Overgrown and forgotten, the site was visited during the Broze Age as is witnessed by the discovery of a spear tip from this period in one of the banks.

This part of the country was invaded by mid-European Celts using iron tools. They brought their iron tools and their priests, the Druids. They also brought over their customs and, in particular, their fragmented, tribal way of life with much feuding between the tribes. It was this fragmentation of the clanish Celts would cause them to be conquered by the efficient Roman war machine with comparative ease. It was also this fragmentation and feuding between the Iron Age tribes which made a defensible site attractive and thus brought occupation to the ancient hillocks of Maiden Castle again.

Like their Neolithic predecessors, the Celts employed ditches and ramparts at maiden Castle, possibly topped by walls to prevent the entry of hostile infantry. Perhaps more numerous, perhaps more technologicaly advanced, unlike the Neolithic folk, the Celts occupied both hillocks.

Initially, the fortifications consisted of a single ditch and rampart, carefully designed to the requirements of the weaponry of the times. The ditch was cut in the form of a deep V. Behind the ditch was a rampart, perhaps eight feet high and ten feet wide which was retained by a wooden wall which offered increased defence by presenting a vertical surface to be climbed by any would-be attacker. As the wooden walls decayed, they were replaced with dry-stone walling, the limestone for which was brought to the site from Upwey, two miles to the south. Within the rampart was a berm, a platform ten feet wide. With no water supply atop the hillocks, the fort could not have withstood a seige of any length.


Having utilized both hillocks, the area encompassed by Iron-Age fort measured some 45 acres - 2,400 feet in length and over 900 feet wide at its widest.It is believed that the site may have housed between four and five thousand people living in timber huts.

Among other contents, the pits have yeilded a dog, a baby and the body of a woman aged about twenty.

The pits may have served as granaries or even water stores. When such a pit soured, it may then have been used to dipose of the inabitants' refuse.

The site contains a large number of pits, each of which is about 3.3 metres (11 feet) deep. Excavations have shown these to contain a mixture of rubbish, chalk debris and ash and the pits have yeilded much useful information about the occupants of the site.

The perfection of the art of using the sling in warfare by the Veneti tribe of Brittany during the late Iron Age rendered the original defences of hill forts useless and many, including those at Maiden Castle, were widened to take the defenders out of reach of the projectiles.

A means of entering and leaving (possibly with cattle and carts) the fortifications had to be provided. At Maiden castle there were gateways at both the eastern and western ends. Gateways into fortifications are their weakest point and here their defences were elaborate, more so at the west end. Here there were a complicated series of ramparts which the attacker had to maneouvre and they were so arranged that he would have to present his left, unshielded, side to the defenders.


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Celtic control of the British Isles (the period known as the "Iron Age") came to an end with the invasion of Britain in AD43 by the 2nd legion Augusta under Vespasian. The Roman historians record that two formidable tribes and twenty towns were captured and maiden Castle was the largest and best defended of these towns.

The Romans landed in south-east England, probably Kent, and faught their way westwards. The crossed the river Frome at a ford, now Dorchester. By the time Vespasian and the legion had arrived at Maiden Castle, they already had considerable experience fighting the British Celts. The defenders must have heard stories from refugees but the sight of the discliplined Roman fighting machine must have been daunting. Even more daunting must have been the first volleys from the Roman ballistae - machines hurling stones and spears across the ramparts.

It is unlikely that the battle for maiden castle lasted long or that the 2nd Legion Augusta suffered great losses. After the capture of the site and, no doubt, slighting of the gateways, the Romans withdrew leaving such Celts as were still alive to bury their dead. This war cemetry was discovered and excavated in the 1930s.

Each of the graves in the war cemetry was identified with a letter and a number, excavated and photographed. Although the burials must have been hurried, each wasaccompanied by food and drink which would be needed for the journey to the afterworld. Sometimes a small gift was also buried.

The remains of one of the graves were removed to the Dorset County Museum at nearby Dorchester and have been much photgraphed. They are of a male skeleton with the head of a Roman ballista arrow embedded in his spine.

The skeletons the graves contained were all examined for signs of injury and among the discoveries, a man's skull shattered by the arrow from a ballista, the skull of a man was the skeleton of a woman who had been slashed across the skull with a sword three times while her hands were tied behind her back and that of a man struck ten times in the head. Such was the aftermath of the battle for no soldier has time during the heat of battle to strike a man in the head ten times or to tie a woman's hand behind her back.

The site probably remained occupied for a decade or two after its capture by the Romans until the country became more peaceful when the local population became focused on Durnovaria (modern Dorchester) which the Romans founded on a hill overlooking the river Frome a mile-and-a-half to the north-east.

About a century after the temple was built a powerful Saxon was buried nearby with his sword and dagger. Why is a mystery although he may have wanted to be associated in death with the impressive and ancient site.

Some three centuries after the Romans over-ran Maiden Castle a temple was built to the old gods (Minerva, Diana, Mars or perhaps to all of them) near the old east gateway to the hill fort when the official religion of the empire was Christianity. A house with two rooms was built for the priests and four of them have been found buried nearby.

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The Dorset novelist described Maiden Castle as "an enourmous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time . . . covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance, while revealing its contour".

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Recommend a Book for this Page

The King's England: DORSET
by Arthur Mee (1967), revised and edited by E T Long
Hodder & Stoughton 1971   ISBN 0 340 00079 1

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