Maiden Castle is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Britain.
Its vast multiple ramparts enclose an area the size of 50 football pitches, and the site was home to several hundred people in the Iron Age (800BC–AD43)
The massive banks stretch across a saddle-backed hilltop 914 metres long. Although the hillfort has earlier origins, most of the ramparts now visible were built in the 1st century BC.
A defensive structure
The hillfort’s banks and ditches would have been formidable obstacles to an attacker, but they may also have been built for display. Their dramatic appearance symbolised the dominance and power of the community that occupied the hillfort.
Unusually, Maiden Castle had two portals at each entrance, perhaps giving access to different territorial land units. In the first phase of construction, these portals were simply openings through the ramparts.
Both eastern and western entrances were modified and enlarged over time with more elaborate banks and ditches. In the final phase of building, the western entrance had developed into a sinuous and confusing corridor, 200 metres long.
The rebuilding of the eastern entrance resulted in the creation of narrow, complex passageways, overlooked by stone platforms, from which guards could have monitored and if necessary defended the entrance.
Over 20,000 slingstones, small rounded pebbles from Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast, have been found at the eastern entrance. They were stored in large pits ready to be thrown or slung at attackers.
The area immediately outside the east entrance gates was the location of a blacksmith’s workshop, and within the entrance there was a large late Iron Age cemetery.
Who lived here?
Maiden Castle had been home to the Durotriges and their predecessors from around 3500BC.
The nature of the occupation of the hillfort changed considerably as the Iron Age progressed.
At first, the fort was home to a small, self-sufficient community, but in the following 400 years it became the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset.
At the height of its occupation, the fort was densely populated and there were many roundhouses. These had central hearths, large pits for storing grain and were often circled by drainage gullies. Various finds from the site show that activities such as textile production and metalworking were taking place here.
The Romans arrived in 43AD. Within a few decades of their arrival, the hillfort was abandoned. The Romans established the town of Dorchester (Durnovaria) to the north-east as the regional capital of the Durotriges.
In the late 4th century, however, a temple complex was built on the hill. At this time, a fusion of native British and classical Roman religion was becoming popular, and it is common to find shrines located in remote rural locations. The abandoned hillfort provided an ideal setting for this new pagan religion.