The development of the fortifications

Wheeler's excavation was the first large-scale scientific study of a British hill-fort, and helped shape our understanding of the people who built these fortifications. He proved that the fort was built in several phases, the first being concentrated on the eastern half of the ridge. An earlier Neolithic camp and raised causeway or barrow had already been built on the same site, but by the time the fort-builders arrived around 500 BC the traces of this earlier settlement and bank had all but disappeared. The first fortification consisted of a dog-legged bank and ditch dug across the ridge from roughly north to south, thereby creating an enclosure bounded on its remaining three sides by the steep slope of the ridge's eastern end. The bank was revetted using timber, and pierced by a wooden gateway. Another bank ran around the top of the ridge, and was pierced by a gateway at its eastern end. The enclosure was certainly occupied, as traces of timber enclosures dating from this period have been found there.

During the next century the defences fell into disrepair, the ramparts collapsed and the ditch silted up. However, around 400 BC the locals decided to rebuild their hill-fort, this time extending it to encompass the whole of the ridge, an area of some 18M hectares (46 acres). The eastern gateway was strengthened with an additional semi-circular ramp and ditch, with the gateway divided into

1 Thomas Hardy, 'A Tryst in an Ancient Earthwork', from A Changed Man, and Other Tales (London, 1913).

The head of a Late Iron Age javelin, recovered from inside the hill-fort ofTraprain Law in East Lothian.This would have been the standard form of missile weapon employed by the defenders - of little use against the siege engines used by the Roman Army. (National Museum of Scotland)

two channels by a median bank. The ramparts and outlying ditch were extended to the western side of the ridge, where a second entrance was constructed, again with a semi-circular line of outer works. Both ramparts were pierced by two gateways approximately 50m apart. This phase of the development of Maiden Castle has been linked to the cultural phase known in Iron Age archaeology as 'A Culture', namely the first identifiable British culture of the Iron Age. Although these people took advantage of the new iron-making technology imported from the mainland of Europe, it is now thought that the majority of these people were indigenous inhabitants of the region.

Around the same time as Maiden Castle was expanded a new group appeared in southern England, their route traced by the remains of their distinctive pottery, the use of the sling and their own particular ideas about fortification. These people were clearly identifiable as Celts.

Around 250 BC these members of 'B Culture', as they are known, began to make their mark on Maiden Castle; its defences went through an extensive revision. As an offensive weapon the sling proved superior in both range and firepower to the javelin used by the 'A Culture' inhabitants. Whether this defensive improvement was made by the old group or the new is largely unknown, but the new scheme was certainly designed to counter and to take advantage of the sling's capabilities. On the northern side of the ridge a secondary bank and ditch was created, supported by a smaller spur bank on the north-western face of the ridge to screen the western gateway. On the south side of the ridge two banks and ditches were added, in addition to additional bank defences in front of both gateways, designed to funnel attackers into a 'killing zone' for slingshot. Finally the original inner rampart was repaired and heightened, the extra scale of the bank supported by a stone revetment buried on the inner face of the earthen bank.

The final form of Maiden Castle's formidable array of defences was probably completed at some stage during the early 1st century BC. The ramparts were enlarged once again, while a substantial counterscarp bank was added which encircled the whole ridge. What was most significant about this third phase of improvements was the strengthening of the two gateways. On the eastern end the outlying defences of the old gateway were filled in or demolished, and in their place a series of two large fortified ramparts were added, both fronted by a ditch and a smaller counterscarp bank. On the western end of Maiden

Maiden Castle Hut Excavation

Castle the old defences were greatly strengthened, and augmented by another outlying rampart, ditch and counterscarp ditch. In addition smaller banks within the gateway complex acted as barriers to funnel attackers trying to round the last outlying rampart before the gatehouse.

The twin gateways themselves were greatly strengthened with stone revetments, as was the north-western entrance to the gateway where it passed the first line of the outer defences. Between the twin gates and the first outer rampart a row of guard huts housed the gate garrison, suggesting a level of military organization that had been lacking in previous defensive systems. In most of the outer ditches leading to the gatehouse (and possibly elsewhere around the fort perimeter) wooden stakes were emplaced as chevaux cie frise, obstacles designed to deter or hinder any attacker. Finally, firing platforms may well have been installed at various points along the outer ramparts, leading to the gatehouse, so that a 'forlorn hope' of slingers could shoot into the flanks or rear of an assault party. By now Maiden Castle had developed into what was probably the best-defended hill-fort in Britain.

Around the time these final improvements were being made to the defences a new group arrived in southern England. Known as 'C Culture' people, these incomers were Celts of the tribe known as the Belgae, whose origins lay in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Within half a century these incomers had extended their control over most of south-east England, and by AD 25 at the latest this had extended as far as Maiden Castle, which they may well have occupied. Certainly their influence was felt within the fort. The Belgae, or those who adopted their ways, repaired the ramparts by reinforcing the banks with a layer of earth and strengthened the wall walk and palisade that surmounted it. Strangely enough this palisade was mounted on the inner side of the rampart, leaving the men who patrolled it exposed to fire from outside the fort. This has been explained as being more of a security barrier than a defensive work - controlling access to the ramparts as a privilege reserved for the warrior elite of the garrison. The posts supporting this palisade were sunk deep into the outer edge of the bank, and so in effect they doubled as a reinforcement for the stone revetment buried in the bank itself.

These improvements did not help the defenders when they encountered Vespasian's II Legion in AD 43. Maiden Castle was captured without much difficulty by the legionary commander, who would soon become a Roman emperor. After capturing the hill-fort the Romans destroyed the fort's gateways, leaving it defenceless. The site remained occupied for another three decades, until the Romans established a new regional capital two miles away in Durnovaria (Dorchester), named after the local tribe known as the Durotrigii. Around AD 70 Maiden Castle was abandoned, and its once formidable defences became a place of pasture. The Romans had one final humiliation for this great symbol of Celtic power. In AD 313 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and around AD 380 a small square temple was built on the eastern side of the ridge, within the bounds of the original fort. A large circular shrine was then built beside what was once the main thoroughfare of the hill-fort, occupying a site that may once have belonged to the principal Celtic roundhouse in the fort. Both structures had fallen into disuse by the end of the 5th century AD.

The main eastern gateway of Maiden Castle, Dorset is one of the most complex of any Iron Age hill-fort, with no fewer than four lines of defence outlying the inner rampart and gate, providing three opportunities to pour fire into an attacker's flank before he reached the gate itself. (RCAHM)

Hillfort Structures

left A living fort:Tre'r Ceiri, c.AD 150

This unique, stone-built hill-fort crowns the summit of the easternmost of the three peaks of Yr Eifl, on the Llyn Peninsula.The area enclosed by the fort's stone walls is about four hectares, and the walls themselves are in good condition.The archaeological evidence suggests that the fort was built around 100 BC, at the end of the Late Iron Age, and remained in use until the end of the period of Roman occupation of Britain.The remains of some 150 Celtic roundhouses have been found on the site, which suggests it was once the centre of an isolated but thriving community, perched on the very edge of Roman-occupied Britain.The defences of the fort were not greatly strengthened over time, but rather a series of small outworks were added - guardhouses that covered the steep approach roads to the top of the summit.The remains of wall-ringed field enclosures surround the fort, proving thatTre'r Ceiri remained the centre of a thriving agrarian community throughout its period of occupation, and that its population increased significantly during the 1st century AD, probably through the arrival of refugees fleeing the Romans.

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  • Ottavio
    Who was discovered at maiden castle in ad25?
    7 years ago

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