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Maiden Castle (Dorchester)

Hillfort

<b>Maiden Castle (Dorchester)</b>Posted by wysefoolImage © unknown 1910
Also known as:
  • Mai Dun.
  • Dumnia

Nearest Town:Dorchester (3km NE)
OS Ref (GB):   SY670884 / Sheet: 194
Latitude:50° 41' 37.32" N
Longitude:   2° 28' 2.16" W



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Fieldnotes

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Visited 14.10.14

I had previously visited this iconic site a few years ago but then I was short of time and only had chance to explore a short section of the mightily impressive ramparts. This time would be different as it is a morning visit and I could take my time – allowing for the fact that Karen would be waiting for me sat in the car!

It is a 5 minute walk from the car park, up the path, and through an original entrance of the hillfort. You then come to the first of several information boards scattered around the site. This directs your attention to the surviving low bank of what is left of the long barrow. This would be very easy to miss if you weren’t specifically looking out for it.

The rain (thankfully) had eased today and I was able to walk around (in a clockwise direction) in comfort. Although the skies were a menacing grey there was little wind and the temperature was very mild for the time of year. There were only two other people visiting the site, one was walking her dog and the other looked like a student who was making notes and sketches as she walked around.

The ramparts are superb and must have looked amazing in their prime, topped with a huge wooden palisade. Even the mighty Roman army must have been (at least a bit) intimidated when confronting this hillfort - although we all know the eventual outcome! The hillfort dominates the surrounding countryside and as you walk around the defences there are good views to be had in every direction.

As I walked around I spotted 3 circular shapes in the grass, given away by a ring of darker grass. Were these the outlines of huts? They certainly looked to be about the right size. My next stop was the information board at the remains of the Roman temple – well worth a look.

I then stopped at the eastern entrance to the hillfort where I feel the defences are at their most impressive. (This is the section of the site I explored on my previous visit).
The two information boards (one broken) explain about the complex defences and the discovery of the pit of sling shots and mass grave found here. I was also able to spot what looked like the remains of a round barrow.

I continued my walk around the site until I ended up back where I started. Walking back down towards the car park the large barrow in the fields beyond looked particularly impressive. It took me just over an hour to complete the circular walk. There are worse ways to spend an hour of your life. When I got back to the car Karen had fallen asleep so I gave her a bit of a fright when I opened the car door!

This is a famous E.H. site but it has not been commercialised (like others) and you can happily wander about the hillfort pretty much wherever and whenever you want. I have visited many hillforts over the years but in terms of sheer scale and impressiveness there is nothing to compare with Maiden Castle.

This is one of those sites which is worth travelling a long way to see. If you get the chance to visit, do so. You won’t be disappointed.
Posted by CARL
17th October 2014ce

This is one of those sites which I found to be 'jaw dropping'. I had of course seen many photos before visiting and had read many articles on the site. However, this did not prepare me for the sheer size of the place and the unbelievably large and deep ramparts - they are MASSIVE!!!!
The defenders of this hillfort must have felt very confident when they saw the Romans approaching......................... Allow as long as possible when visiting this site, It will certainly take a time to walk around the outside edge!
Posted by CARL
19th March 2010ce

I approached the hillfort from the north, passing close by Lanceborough, the massive bell barrow below Maiden Castle. I was hoping to see a long barrow which is shown on O.S and Magic, this now appears to have been completely ploughed out.
Once inside the hillfort I decided to look mainly at the neolithic origins of it. Still visible is the very long bank barrow or possible cursus feature which curves across the northern part of the interior for about 550 metres. It now shows as a low ridge, this area has been ploughed in the past. The original causewayed enclosure is now no longer visible on the ground and is thought to be overlaid by the first phase of the hillfort.
Also visible in the south west corner is a low bronze age bowl barrow.
From the southern rampart I counted twelve round barrows on the ridge of hills a few miles to the south, one of these is a unique hybrid disc/bowl barrow.
formicaant Posted by formicaant
29th October 2007ce
Edited 12th January 2011ce

Visited with the lovely Karen on fantastic spring day that was more like the height of summer. Were astounded by the phenomenal size of the place - it's staggering! We left the car in the car park and trekked up to the brilliantly designed western entry, with its tangle of confusing earthworks. Blind corners everywhere, and as we commented, in the heat of battle, it would have been very easy to get instantly disorientated and penned in - especially as your advance would have been seen a good while before!

Atop the hillfort, we could really see how big it was - the grass simply stretched continously away from us on either side. I would imagine it would be very easy for the whole of medieval Oxford to have been swallowed up inside the enclosure. The views were splendid, and above us the skylarks did their thing, and the buzzards circled high in the blue sky. We walked well into the middle of the place, and sat and relaxed, until it got too cold. Walked back via the ramparts; amazing what one can do with an antler . . .

From there, we set off to see the Cerne Abbas Giant in the evening sunshine.
treaclechops Posted by treaclechops
31st August 2003ce

I logged on a while back and Joanna asked me to say a few things about myself and my experiences at Maiden Castle. We'd packed the Nissan with hol' stuff and took ourselves (pregnant girlfriend, 3 other kids and self down to Dorset. "What the hell is that?", me trying to keep eyes on road and simultaneously crane at biggg earth mound. Wonder if thats what the Romans or come to that any army thought as Maiden Castle came into view.

Nil desperandum. That's where we're going. Several days later after scouring local maps, off we set. Overcast, damp grey, rebellion in the offing but I managed to persuade the 2 boys in our party to walk up with me. Wind whipping up around us, really atmospheric. I loved every moment. This is an important part of our historical landscape that I, as a South London boy know nothing about. Pre-history is not exactly on many curriculums. Why do these places make us feel the way we do? I am so pleased that the MA helped to cast light.
Posted by GRIZ
3rd July 2003ce

Visited 23 07 1994

What I still remember of the visit, now more than 8 years ago, is the vastness and the strong wind from the sea. The fort is the largest one in Britain, and it is hard not to see this as a large city. No wonder the Romans fought hard to take this one, it must have had a large influence on the south coast and across the Channell. Now, all that is gone and we don't know hardly anything at all about the Celtic kingdom which once existed here. The region never regained it's strenght.
Vortigern Posted by Vortigern
13th November 2002ce

Visited 30/03/2002

After a non-neolithic day near my favourate sites, I escaped the family and headed off up here for sunset.

It had been a few years since I was last here, its the first time I've been up here for sunset and I wasn't disapointed.

I situated myself on the south side towards the east entrance and watched the sun set behind the Iron Age ramparts, all the while feeling more and more peaceful.

This site oozes power and peace in a strange combination. It always invigorates me more than the obligatory run up the ramparts would alone.

All in all a successful re-aquaintance with this lovely hill.
juamei Posted by juamei
5th April 2002ce

After a rain free visit to Mambury Rings we were not so lucky with the weather at Maiden Castle. By the time we got there it was Raining. Those of you that have been to the site will know that it is very expossed and open to the elements. We all disembarked from the coach and for the next hour and a half we walked around the site on a guided tour. This is one of the best Iron Age hillforts I have been to. The views of the surrounding landscape are very impresssive.. It is evident that this was a very important landscape during prehistoric times for on the horison one can make out many prehistoric barrows. If anybody has never been to an Iron Age hillfort then Maiden Castle is well worth a visit. From experience I reccommend that one does not go here when it is Raining for as I found out today you get rather wet very quickly

Richard Hayward 24.11.00
Posted by Richard Hayward
24th November 2000ce

If you need to drain your kids of hyperactivity, then have them try to charge Maiden Castle via the main defences - my record for running is halfway up the second ditch, before collapsing with breathing problems.

An interesting and practical introduction into neolithic architecture and defensive strategy ...
Posted by RiotGibbon
18th April 2000ce

Folklore

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A halt was made at a pit, and [the Rev. W. Barnes] observed that military men wondered how the people taking refuge in these fortifications obtained water [...] This pit was in the shape of an inverted cone. Some thought that it had been a chalk-pit. [...] Others thought it was a cattle-pond, but it was too steep to be used for such a purpose. Dr. Cowdell had told him that he dug at the bottom of the pit, and found it to be lined with flint stones, and his (Dr. Cowdell's) theory was that the pit was used as a tank, in which the occupants of the castle placed the water fetched from the spring for their use. At the present time he did not believe the pit would hold water for any length of time.

The Rev. C. W. Bingham observed there was a tradition as well founded as traditions generally were, that once upon a time a goose was put into this hole, and the same afternoon it came up at the town pump of Durnovaria [Dorchester].
From 'The Gentleman's Magazine', September 1865.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
6th September 2012ce

Westwood and Simpson ('Lore of the Land' 2005) mention an early version from 1774 about the tunnel which runs from the south side of the hill to the centre of town. Variations continue to thrive: "A man who wanted to test its truth put a duck into the hole, and a few days later 'the duck emerged, looking slightly confused, in the centre of Dorchester'." (Don't go shoving any more ducks down holes or I'll have to call the RSPB.)

They also mention Jeremy Harte's researches into Maiden Castle(s) in which he mentions 'ghostly Roman soldiers' and 'a strange force capable of rocking a parked car'. Sounds intriguing. Such a big hillfort has plenty of room for plenty of weirdness. You'd better see their bibliography in 'Lore of the Land' (2005).
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
1st March 2006ce
Edited 8th April 2006ce

Maiden Castle is traditionally a place where the fairies gathered for feasting.

It is also said that some labourers were once passing the fort and saw lights hovering above its entrance - they believed these were fairies.

(Janet Bord, in her 2004 book 'Fairy Sites', using Roberts' article 'Fairy Rings' in Earth Giant 2.)

Here's a more recent reporting of Strange Lights as well (read down to the comment at the end):
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dorset/content/articles/2006/03/22/unexplained_feature.shtml
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
26th January 2005ce
Edited 5th May 2010ce

It's not hard to see why local legend has it this fort was built by giants.

It also has an interestingly recent bit of folklore: it is said that during WW2 the Home Guard made use of a tunnel which connects the site with Dorchester, two miles away.

(J&C Bord, 'Atlas of Magical Britain')
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
29th October 2003ce

Miscellaneous

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Maiden Castle Causewayed Enclosure

Details of causewayed enclosure on Pastscape - Monument No. 1537734

The Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Maiden Castle occupies only the eastern part of the hill, and has an approximate area of 8 hectares, making it one of the larger examples in England. It is overlain by a large Iron Age hillfort which has restricted investigation of the Neolithic remains. The west side of the Neolithic enclosure is overlain by the long mound, a 500 metre-long earthwork. Wheeler identified that the earliest phase of the hillfort followed the line of two concentric circuits of causewayed ditch. The inner ditch contained several episodes of filling and substantial numbers of artefacts. In 1985-6 surveys of the hill and its environs raised the possibility that a north-east to south-west earthwork running into the west hillfort entrance may originally have been a freestanding cross-ridge dyke. A third, outermost Neolithic ditch may also exist 30 metres outside the known outer ditch. A further `Neolithic mound' of unknown extent may lie yet farther east. Early Neolithic pits around the eastern hillfort entrance and the east end of the long mound, were shown to extend south-west of the hillfort. The manufacture of flint axeheads and other large core tools on the site was confirmed. The assemblages from nearby sites strongly suggest that axehead-making was focused at Maiden Castle. Recent research has concluded that the enclosure at Maiden Castle began to be built probably in the 3550s or 3540s cal BC. It is possible that the two circuits were dug in the same year, almost certainly within a single generation. The enclosure ditches filled up quickly, both ditches were filled probably by 3550-3530 cal BC. The use of the enclosure was remarkably short, lasting no more than a single generation. Indeed the outer ditch may have been infilled possibly in less than a year. It is probable that the outer ditch of the causewayed enclosure had been dug and had filled up by the time the long mound was constructed.
Chance Posted by Chance
29th May 2014ce

Well, this has to be one of the stranger things I've read about an ancient site.
A dentist living at Dorchester (Dorset) of the name of Maclean, anxious to prosecute some scientific inquiries bearing upon his profession as a dentist, obtained permission to open a barrow in the neighbourhood of that ancient town [at or near to] Maiden Castle; in which he found, at the depth of thirty feet below the surface, not only the teeth of ancient Britons, the chief object of his search, but he also discovered, lying in what seemed to be the cavity of the abdomen of a skeleton, a quantity of a substance, which turned out upon investigation to be the seeds of raspberries. Some of these seeds were planted in a pot, and placed under the care of Mr. Hartwig, then employed in the gardens at Chiswick. Four of these seeds germinated, and plants were preserved and grown therefrom, and which we are told are still living in those gardens.
This correspondence goes on for several pages, with testaments to the complete reliability of the persons mentioned. You've still got to wonder, really. Yet you hear about other 1000+ year old seeds germinating..

From Notes and Queries, December 4th 1852.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
21st September 2006ce
Edited 21st September 2006ce

It seems fairs were often held at hill forts - here's an example of what went on at one in 1798.
The King, Queen and all the Princesses, with a number of the Nobility, went to Maiden Castle near Dorchester to see the sports of the country people [..] the sports were announced in the following handbill:-

All persons of jovial, friendly, and loyal disposition are invited to be present at, and to partake of, the undermentioned country sports, which with others, to be declared upon the ground, are intended, if the weather be fine, to be exhibited at Maiden Castle, this day, September 29, at 11 o'clock in the morning, in honour of the Birthday of her Royal Highness the Duchess of Wurtembergh:-

To be played for at cricket, a round of beef: each man of the winning set to have a ribband.
A cheese to be rolled down the hill; prize to whoever stops it.
A silver cup to be run for by Ponies. The best of three heats.
A pound of tobacco to be grinned for.
A barrel of beer to be rolled down the hill; prize to whoever stops it.
A michaelmas-day goose to be dived for.
A good hat to be cudgelled for.
Half a guinea for the best ass in three heats.
A handsome hat, for the boy most expert in catching a roll dipped in treacle, and suspended by a string.
A leg of mutton and a gallon of porter to the winner of a race of 100 yards in sacks.
A good hat to be wrestled for.
Half a guinea to the rider of the ass who wins the best of three heats by coming in last.
A pig; prize to whoever catches him by the tail.
The mind boggles. Especially regarding the beer barrel.

From The Times, Oct 3rd 1798, quoted in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset v5.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
30th June 2005ce
Edited 30th June 2005ce

Links

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Maiden Castle Video on Youtube


A selection of my photos and video accompanied by sounds of the Celtic harp.
wickerman Posted by wickerman
10th February 2013ce

Francesca Radcliffe - Aerial Archaeology


Nice aerial picture, and a little bit of info.
pure joy Posted by pure joy
24th November 2002ce