Maiden Castle, Dorset

Covering an area of some 47 acres, Maiden Castle is the largest hill fort in Britain and lies 2 miles south of Dorchester in the county of Dorset. The dimensions of the fort are truly immense, and must have presented a formidable obstacle to any attacking force. Even today, after 2000 years of erosion, the ramparts in some areas rise to a height of 20ft (6m). Flint tools and bone implements found at the site suggest that the hill was first occupied c3000BC when it would have afforded protection to late Stone Age/early Bronze Age people. At some stage during this early period of occupation a Bank Barrow was constructed, east to west across the site, reaching a length of 1800ft (546m). Around 1200BC the site appears to have been abandoned, but the reason remains a mystery.

The present hill fort was started in the latter part of the Iron Age c300BC, comprising a much smaller arrangement at the eastern end of the site, and this was slowly extended in a westerley direction as the population grew. Three concentric rings of ditches formed the defences, with the spoil heaped on the inner side of the ditch to create an earthern rampart, effectively doubling the height from the bottom of the ditch to the top. A wooden pallisade would have extended along the top of the rampart in a similar fashion to a castle battlement. Large wooden gates would have blocked the entrances, the weakest point of the defences, with the pallisade continuing along the top. At Maiden Castle the entrances through each defensive ring were offset, possibly causing an attacking force to be concentrated into a relatively small area within the ditch, and making attack from above far more effective.

'Maiden' derives from the Celtic Mai Dun, which means great hill. It was known to have been the stronghold of the Durotriges tribe, until it fell to the 2nd Legion Augusta, under Vespasian, during the Roman invasion in AD43. The battle for the fort was a bloody one, and centered on the eastern entrance. Excavations carried out in the 20th century uncovered the bodies of 38 Iron Age warriors, who had been laid to rest by their Roman victors, along with food and drink for their journey into the after life.

After the Roman occupation the history of Maiden Castle becomes unclear, although a Roman Temple was constructed in the 4th century AD the foundations of which remain. It is feasible that the hill continued to be inhabited during early Saxon times, but appears to have been deserted for the last 1400 years. Many hill forts can be found in the 'Wessex' (an old Anglo-Saxon county) area but Maiden Castle is by far the most impressive, and commands some breathtaking views across the county.

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