Maiden Castle Dorchester
English Heritage
Dorset DT2 9PP
 
 
As the visitor approaches Dorchester from the south on the A35 from Weymouth they pass a strange looking hill. It is huge but appears to have been made by man and indeed it was. These grassy ramparts are the Iron Age Maiden Castle hill fort.
 
Six thousand years ago the local tribes began improving this natural feature by excavating ditches and building ramparts, enclosing an area the size of 50 football pitches and turning it into a hill fort.
 
Largest Hill Fort in Britain
Maiden Castle is the largest hill fort in Britain and some say, Western Europe. It is certainly an impressive place to visit.
 
Archaeologists have unearthed many finds which have helped them discover why and when this massive structure was constructed. Their finds are on display in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
 
History
It must be remembered that the earliest tribes in the area 6,000 years ago only had natural tools at their disposal – flints found in the chalk hillsides and animal antlers and bones which could be used for cutting and digging respectively. We know that they cleared the woodland from the top of the hill with flint axes and an oval enclosure of two segmented ditches was built on the eastern plateau. These causewayed enclosures were the first types of monument in Britain.
 
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It seems that they were built as markers of the inhabitants’ boundaries and important places for rituals. Certainly the exposed chalk would have been visible for miles around.
 
Not long after the enclosure went out of use, a long mound nearly 601 yards (550 metres) in length was constructed across the enclosure, flanked by two ditches. It may have served as a marker of the ancestors.
 
After a period of reduced activity the site was improved again with the building in the early Iron Age (800 - 550 BC) of the first hill fort. Enclosed by a single rampart, the entrances were flanked by complex timber revetted walls.
 
A Display of dominance & Power
Although not built as a defensive fort in the military sense, the complex entrances enabled the inhabitants to closely monitor people entering the enclosure so could identify strangers. The banks and ditches would have been formidable obstacles to an attacker, but they were probably built for the purposes of display, with their dramatic appearance symbolizing the dominance and power of the community that occupied the hill fort.
 
In the middle Iron Age (550 – 300 BC), a much larger area of 47 acres (19 hectares) was enclosed including the western end of the hill, allowing more people to live within the defences. Unusually, Maiden Castle had two portals at each entrance, perhaps giving access to different territorial land units.
 
At first the hill fort was home to a small self-sufficient community but over 400 years Maiden Castle became the foremost settlement in southern Dorset. At first it was used for storing grain in raised square buildings’ then a few thatched round houses were built.
 
Houses with thoroughfares
Later, in the middle Iron Age the houses were organized into rows with thoroughfares between them. Evidence has been found that the houses had a central hearth, 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 there.
 
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Towards the end of the late Iron Age (100-50 BC) the focus of the settlement moved to the eastern end where increasing trade with the Continent was being conducted and specialised industries such as metalworking were becoming very important at the site. A blacksmith’s workshop was found outside the entrance.
 
Threat of Invasion
It would seem that the threat of invasion was being considered because it was here that 20,000 pebbles from Chesil Beach were found in pits beside the entrances. These were obviously ammunition for sling shots, the armament used by Iron Age people. You can see some of these pebbles in the museum.
 
Within the entrance a large cemetery was found but the burials were not hastily dug as would be the case if they were burying war dead. The burials contained grave goods and food for the afterlife.
 
With the arrival of the Romans and their establishment of the nearby town of Dorchester, in 70 AD the hill fort was finally abandoned.
 
In the late 4th century a Romano-British temple was built on the hill fort. Such pagan temples were sited on prominent rural landmarks and Maiden Castle was the obvious choice. The finds from this excavation are also on display in the museum.
 
Plan Your Visit
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Opening Dates, Times & Admission
Open All year – Admission is free.
 
Facilities
The site is cared for by English Heritage. There is a car park and information boards.
 
Access to the site is by a short but steep path to the right of the car park which leads you through the original Iron Age entrance.
 
Another path and steps takes you through the hill fort defences. The banks and ditches are very steep and care should be taken.
 
Contact & Further Information
 
Getting There
- By Road  
The site is about 1 mile (1.5 km) south of the A35 Dorchester by-pass and the same distance from the A354 Dorchester/ Weymouth connection road. The English Heritage Website above has an excellent map and & Aerial View.
 
Google Map - Maiden Castle