Maiden Castle: Iron Age Settlement

English Heritage

Ancient ramparts with connections to prehistoric farmers, Roman soldiers and 20th century artists

A Historic Hillfort
Maiden Castle is the largest and most impressive Iron Age hillfort in Britain. The dramatic earthworks rise majestically above the rolling countryside to the south west of Dorchester, in Dorset.

Its earthen ramparts enclose an area of over 19 hectares – the equivalent of 19 rugby pitches!

Between about 400 and 200 BC, at the height of its Iron Age occupation, the hillfort would have been densely packed with houses, roads and storage buildings and bustling with people and their livestock.

This community was part of the Durotriges tribe who lived in modern Dorset and parts of Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon.

Before this, Maiden Castle had a long sequence of prehistoric activity. This was revealed by archaeological excavations in the 1930s and the 1980s.

The large Iron Age hillfort has obscured earlier monuments, including an earlier, smaller Iron Age hillfort and two early Neolithic monuments.

The first monument to be built on the hilltop in the early Neolithic period (about 3550 BC) was a ‘causewayed enclosure’ formed by two roughly circular concentric ditches.

Each ditch was dug out in segments, leaving narrow gaps or causeways between them.

This enclosure was probably a place where people gathered for rituals, feasting, exchange and ceremonies. Flint tools were found associated with the enclosure, as well as infant burials, animal bones and pottery.

Within 35 years, the ditches were infilled, so this was a short-lived monument.

Shortly afterwards, a 546-metre long bank was built between two parallel ditches across the earlier enclosure.

It may have been a territorial or symbolic marker in the landscape. Major construction activity then ceased for about 2,500 years.

The first hillfort was built in the early Iron Age (800–550 BC), enclosing the eastern end of the hill with a single bank and V-shaped ditch.

It was densely populated, with many roundhouses and large storage pits for grain. Activities such as textile-making and metalworking took place.

Throughout the Iron Age, the hillfort was constantly modified to suit the changing needs of its inhabitants.

In the middle Iron Age (550–300 BC), a much larger area was enclosed and the ramparts were made much larger and more elaborate. Once randomly organised, the houses were now built in regimented rows.

By about 400 BC, Maiden Castle had become the preeminent settlement and political centre of the Durotriges tribe.

Its impressive, dominant ramparts were a symbol of the importance of this group, and their construction united the growing community.

With the creation of the nearby Roman town of Dumovaria (modern Dorchester) at the end of the 1st century AD, the hillfort was abandoned.

A small Roman temple was later built on the hilltop in the 4th century AD, where hundreds of coins and several statues have been found.

150 Years of Investigation
Maiden Castle has long fascinated archaeologists. The first excavations took place in 1865, when the antiquary Edward Cunnington excavated what he described as a ‘villa’ (actually the Roman temple), believing the whole site to be Roman in date. But the most significant discoveries were made by Sir Mortimer Wheeler some 60 years later.

Jointly directed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Tessa Wheeler and Colonel Charles Drew, these excavations took place at the hillfort each summer between 1934 and 1936. They employed a grid system of trench layout which regulated the trenches and made them accessible to the viewing public.

Seventeen areas of the site were excavated, with roundhouses, the temple, a cemetery and the ramparts all explored. The team identified the earlier hillfort and deduced the complex sequence of construction and enlargement.

Mortimer Wheeler’s evocative description of the history of the site became a classic piece of archaeological writing.

The excavations at Maiden Castle excited much public interest and were marketed as a visitor attraction.

Money was raised for the project through donations, sales of postcards and a guidebook, and – most controversially – selling finds such as slingshot pebbles, pottery and tile fragments.

One discovery was a late Iron Age cemetery of 52 individuals, some of whom had violent injuries. Mortimer Wheeler thought these were war graves, the result of an attack on the hillfort by the Roman army. However, the careful internment of individuals with grave goods suggests this was an ordinary cemetery.

In 1985 and 1986, further excavations took place at Maiden Castle led by Professor Niall Sharples.

These uncovered the Neolithic sequence, led to a re-interpretation of Wheeler’s ‘war cemetery’ and shifted away from a purely defensive explanation towards the idea that the hillfort was a symbol of community cohesion and domination.

As well as excavation, the 1980s research project included detailed surveys of the earthworks, geophysical surveys and research into the surrounding landscape.

These showed that the hillfort had been built at a junction of earlier major land divisions and showed the dense nature of the Iron Age occupation in the interior.

In the last few years, a radiocarbon dating project called Gathering Time has provided much more precise dates for the construction of the early Neolithic causewayed enclosure and bank barrow at Maiden Castle. It has shown that activity was relatively short-lived, taking place over no more than two generations.

More recent excavations as part of the Durotriges project, led by archaeologists from Bournemouth University, have revealed a previously unknown undefended Iron Age town 15 miles to the north-west.

This may be where Maiden Castle’s inhabitants lived after they left the hillfort in the late Iron Age.

Landscape of Inspiration
The striking earthworks of Maiden Castle have inspired painters, writers and poets for centuries. From the writings of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy to contemporary, 21st-century interpretations, the Iron Age landmark is a place that unites people across time.

No writer has evoked the Dorest landscape quite like Thomas Hardy. Using the fictional name of ‘Wessex’ for his home county, Hardy poured the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the local countryside into his famous 19th-century novels.

Maiden Castle was Hardy's local hill. He lived just outside Dorchester, a stone's throw from the ancient ramparts.

In Hardy's novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' (1886), the protagonist Michael Henchard runs across the hillfort to warn his employee Donald Farfrae of trouble at home. Farfrae himself later goes there for trysts with the heroine, Elizabeth-Jane.

Hardy lived to see his novel adapted into a film by Sidney Morgan, and visited the actors and crew on set at Maiden Castle. He is seen here (second from left) on the set of the film production in 1921.

The modernist painter Paul Nash, particularly well known for his First World War art, was also captivated by ancient landscape of Maiden Castle. He visited during Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excavations in the 1930s.

Nash's watercolour 'Maiden Castle' (1943) emphasises the dramatic impact of the hillfort ramparts.

The Welsh writer John Cowper Powys was a great admirer of Thomas Hardy. He moved to Dorset in 1934 and used the landscape as the inspiration for his novel, 'Maiden Castle' (1936).

The novel was intended to emulate and rival Hardy’s 'Mayor of Casterbridge'. It includes a description of an archaeological investigation at the site, clearly based on Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations.

Inspired by Maiden Castle's history and impact on artists and writers, English Heritage and creative partner Splash and Ripple have produced their own artistic interpretation of the site.

Echoscape is an immersive audio experience exploring the stories of Nash, Hardy and an imagined Iron Age storyteller called Nonna.

The audio experience is designed to be listened to during a visit to Maiden Castle.

You can download the audio in advance from the Maiden Castle page on the English Heritage website.

By exploring the stories of others who have walked this ancient landscape before us, we're invited to consider our own place within Maiden Castle’s ongoing history.

Credits: Story

Susan Greaney, Rose Arkle

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Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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