Maiden Castle, Vespasian's finest hour

Maiden Castle is an iron age hill-fort in the south of England, near Dorchester (Roman Durnovaria). It is the largest iron-age hill-fort in Europe. The name "Maiden" derives from the Celtic "Mai Dun" meaning "great hill". The whole hill and ramparts enclose an area of 45 acres.

A causewayed camp was erected on the hill around 3500 B.C., and around 3000 B.C. a huge barrow or burial mound, 545 metres (1788 feet) in length was added. In about 450 B.C. the hill-fort was extended to the west and in the third century B.C. the fortifications, the ditches and ramparts were enlarged, with entrances to the east and west of the hill. During this period the hill-fort was a flourishing town.

The massive inner defences View over the defences from the summit of the hill

In 43 A.D. the Romans arrived in Britain. At this time the hill-fort was occupied by the Durotriges. The Second Roman Legion, commanded by Vespasian, the future Emperor, attacked the castle, defended by warriors with a huge store of 40,000 sling stones taken from nearby Chesil Beach, taking it after a fierce battle. Recent excavations have uncovered the skeletons of 38 of the defending warriors, buried with food and drink for their journey into the after-life. You can see one of these skeletons in the Dorchester Museum, with a Roman arrowhead still lodged in it's spine.

An arrowhead in the spine of a defender (Dorchester Museum)

The remaining inhabitants moved to the new Roman town of Durnovaria, now Dorchester, and Maiden Castle was deserted. A Romano-Celtic temple was built in the 4th century, A.D. It's 12 metre square foundations are still visible.

Approaching the entrances to the hill-fort, you are met with a complex series of "small" ditches, ("small" being a relative term here). This was no doubt to confuse enemies and expose them to spears and arrows from above. Having safely negotiated our way through these obstacles, we come to the two, and in places three, massive ditches dug all the way round the hill-top. The ramparts formed by these ditches rise to a height of 6 metres (20 feet). On top of the ramparts would have been wooden fences, with wooden gates at the entrances.

The summit of the hill-fort is flat(ish). In that respect, it is reminiscent of the summit of Masada, that Judean hill-fort captured by the legions of the same Vespasian that captured this one 30 years before. There are some iron-age burial mounds on the summit as well as the stone foundations of the Romano-Celtic temple.

Part of the summit of the hill Foundations of the Romano-Celtic Temple

The hill was completely abandoned after the Romans left. It may have been used by the Saxons - the remains of a ritually murdered man were found at the east end of the hill, dating from around 635 A.D. Since then the place has been deserted - apart from Julia Christie and Terence Stamp running around it in "Far from the Madding Crowd" and the occasional tourist.

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