Two miles south of Dorchester in the heart of Hardy”s Wessex lies the biggest hill fort in Britain, Maiden Castle (the name comes from the Celtic Mai Dun, meaning ”great hill”), which covers more than 2,000 years of wear and tear the ramparts still rise in places to a height of over 18 feet (5.5 metres). When first completed these ramparts would have been considerably higher.
Archaeologists have found flint and bone implements and tools that suggest that human activity on this hill dates back to at least 3,000 BC, the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The first stage of development was building of a bank barrow some 600 yards long and running east to west. Around 1200 BC the site was then completely abandoned for reasons which have yet to be explained, but by 300 BC human activity had resumed and work the present hill fort begun. The original fort was at the eastern end of the hill and then gradually extended to the west.
Maiden Castle is defended by three concentric ditches, each with its associated ramparts made from the soil dug out of the ditch and thrown up on the inner side of the ring. The ramparts would originally have been further strengthened with timber palisades, entered through massive timber gates positioned at intervals. Entrances through the ramparts did not line up, in other words they were offset, thus making any attack far easier to fight off for if invaders got through one gate they would then be trapped between two rings until they could work round to the next entrance gate, and in this interval devastating counter-attacks could be mounted from above.
We know that the Celtic Durotriges tribe held Maiden Castle until the Roman invasion of AD 43 soon after which it was overrun by the Second Legion Augusta. The fiercest fighting seems to have taken place at the eastern entrance, where archaeologists discovered the remains of 38 Iron Age warriors. They had clearly been killed during a battle but had been buried by their Roman conquerors with various items including food and drink for their use in the afterlife.
The foundation of a Roman temple have been found at Maiden Castle but little is known about any subsequent activity there. The castle may have been inhabited by the Saxons but it has certainly been unused for a least 1,400 years.
In nearby Dorchester Museum you can see the skeleton of one of Maiden Castle”s defenders, still with a roman bolt fired from a ballista in his spine.