Even today the multivallate ditch system and high ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort at Maiden Castle never fails to impress. Among both the biggest and most impressive sites in Britain, having an inner defensive circuit of 2.5km, the area within its huge ramparts measures some 18ha. However despite the defences, failed to stop the Roman Second Legion who stormed it in AD 43. 

Prehistoric Maiden Castle

The earliest archaeological evidence of human activity on the site consists of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure and bank barrow. In around 4000 BC, it would have been was cleared of woodland  and an oval area enclosed by two ditches ( 15m apart) were created on the eastern plateau.  It is called a causewayed enclosure because the way the ditches were dug meant that there would originally have been gaps between the ditches. Archaeologist Niall Sharples, who was involved in excavating the hill fort in the 1980s, has identified the hilltop views of the surrounding landscape as a likely factor for the enclosure’s position. Situated on the side of the hill, it would have been visible from several miles away, and when first cut the ditches would have exposed the underlying white chalk and stood out against the green hillside. In about 1800 BC, during the Bronze Age, the site was used for growing crops before being abandoned.

Iron Age Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle, the name deriving from the Celtic word ‘Mai Dun’ meaning ‘Great Hill’. After about 350BC, the Iron Age defences were developed, the original fort was built with a single ditch or rampart, which is a univallate hillfort enclosing just one of the hilltops. It starting with a 6.5ha fort on the site of the Neolithic camp, which was subsequently extended to 18ha towards the W.

The massive ramparts and ditches were constructed c150BC. The defences were strengthened c75BC, at which time the complex entrances to E and W were constructed. By now, the fort enclosed a flourishing Iron Age town.

In all respects the fort was not much different from the myriad of similar hill forts littered across the country. Around the fourth century BC the castle underwent massive expansion; the perimeter of the fort extended to include the adjacent hilltop and the defensive earthworks were upgraded with the three ditch system seen today. Whether this was due to defensive requirements or was just for symbolic purposes, i.e. to articulate Maiden Castle’s importance as an economic or administrative hub, is unknown.

Maiden Castle and the Romans

Following the Roman invasion of AD 43 the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta), under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, swept through the South and West Country.

The fort was conquered after a protracted assault on the E gateway by Vespasian and Legio II sometime after 43AD; over 50,000 slingstones from nearby Chesil beach that were found in this area during excavations bear mute testimony to the stiff resistance the defenders offered. (The downhill range of a slingstone from the ramparts here would be c140m). In a British war cemetery located just outside the E gate were buried 30 warriors killed during the Roman assault. This, we know, because one of the skeletons exhumed had a Roman ballista bolt lodged in its spine. In addition, each warrior was accompanied by his tankard and a joint of meat, but no weapons, presumably as they had all been confiscated by the conquering Romans.

By 70AD the local civil population had relocated to the town of Durnovaria (Dorchester), and the fort remained deserted until late in the 4th century, when a 12m square Romano-British temple was built in the NE area of the old fort, having a square cella at the centre surrounded by a verandah, and a 2-roomed priests house just to the N.

Inhabited at the time by the Durotriges tribe, the seemingly impressive defences were only a fleeting obstacle to the Roman military machine. The castle was taken, the earthworks slighted and the populace forcibly relocated to modern day Dorchester.  

Map References for Maiden Castle – Winterborne Monkton, Dorset

NGRef: SY669884 OSMap: LR194

Sites near Maiden Castle