From The Neolithic To The Sea: A Journey From The Past To The Present
Maiden Castle
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Category
County
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Condition
Age
Cost
Hillfort
Dorset
50° 41′ 40.18″ N, 2° 28′ 5.49″ W
SY66938848
Good
600 Bc
Free
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  • History
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Maiden Castle is an ironage hillfort located close to Dorchester in Dorset. It is thought to be named from the Celtic 'Mai-dun' meaning 'Great Hill'.

Maiden Castle started life as a Neolithic causewayed enclosure built around 4000 Bc. It was an oval area enclosed by two ditches with gaps in the ditches. The ditches would have exposed the underlying chalk and as it was located on the side of the hill would have been visible for miles around. It is not sure if this site was inhabited even though a grave containing two children aged roughly 6 and 7 were found.

The site of the enclosure at Maiden Castle was important to Neolithic man, rituals related to death were preformed here, pottery from the coast as well as areas from the east and west show it to be a meeting place attended by people who came long distances. The site was abandoned around 3400 Bc. Arrowheads were found in the ditches which may have been the reason for such an abrupt end. 50 years after it was abandoned a bank barrow was built over the enclosure. Most barrows contain human remains, but this one was empty and thought to be a boundary marker and the hill was abandoned for around 500 years.

The hill was farmed from around 1800 Bc but the soil was soon exhausted and the site abandoned. Again the site lay undisturbed until the ironage when the hill was used to build a hillfort. The barrow still survived, although now it was a low mound and the ironage people never built on it.

The hillfort was constructed around 600 Bc on a territorial boundary. This fort was about 16 acres and surrounded by a single ditch. The defences were around 8.5m high and a V shaped ditch dug with a rampart on top. The entrances to the hillfort probably were timber faced to impress visitors to the site. The defences were rebuilt at least once by deepening the ditch by 1.5m to 7m in places. The soil placed behind the ramparts. The defences around the eastern entrance were made more complex.

In the early ironage the fort was much like any other in the country. It was around the years 450 Bc that Maiden castle was enlarged to about 47 acres to become the largest in western Europe. Many of the smaller forts fell into disuse. the more important for were expanded like Maiden Castle but none grew as large or impressive. These larger hillforts were spread out more in the countryside. The ironage society had became more complex and it has been suggested that these new larger hillforts became centres of commerce.

As the hillfort grew it expanded westwards and enclosed the neighbouring hill, this left a valley inside the fort. The single ditch was expanded around the site and became more elaborate. The ramparts became higher and the entrances more complex. Granaries have been discovered in the hillfort and the evidence of roundhouses. These houses were organised in rows and were approximately the same size. Bronze objects have been found, such as pins, jewellery and rivets dating to the middle ironage.

Hillforts began to fall out of use, society was changing again with the interaction of the Roman empire. Around 100 Bc Maiden Castles street pattern began to change to a more random pattern as population declined. The western half of the site was abandoned. Iron working grew on the site and Maiden Castle became one of the most important iron production sites from the Late Iron Age in southern Britain.

The Roman invasion of Britain began in 43 AD. They attacked the inhabitants of the hillfort and the battle was focused towards the eastern entrance. Pits full of stones have been found evenly spaced in the hillfort.

Sometime after 367, a Romano-Celtic temple was built at Maiden Castle in the eastern half of the hill fort. The date was deduced from a hoard of coins discovered beneath a mosaic floor in the temple. Nearby there were two other buildings, a rectangular building with two rooms that may have been a house for a priest, and a circular building that may have been a shrine. At the same time as the temple was built, the fort's eastern gateway was refurbished; there was possibly another shrine inside the gateway. The 4th-century temple gradually fell into disuse and Maiden Castle was used predominantly as pasture.

In the 16th century a barn was built over the 'war cemetery', used for storage when the hillfort was used briefly for growing crops, traces of ridge and furrow caused by ploughing can been seen.

Between 1985 and 1986 excavations under Niall Sharples were prompted by the hill fort's deteriorating condition, partly caused by the large number of visitors to the site. Under the guidance of English Heritage, repair work and archaeological investigations were undertaken.

The structure was made a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1997, giving Maiden Castle protection against unauthorised change and it is now maintained by English Heritage. Maiden Castle is open to the public all year round.