The settlement

The one feature that both excavations at Maiden Castle failed to reveal in any detail was the configuration of the hill-fort's interior. After all, the reason the fortifications existed in the first place was to protect the Iron Age community who lived and worked there. Archaeology has revealed a little about how these people lived, and how their settlement was organized. The first settlement there was a Neolithic one, established around 4000 BC. However, the community there was relatively small - probably no more than 100 people, based on the size of the causeway camp they built. It seems to have remained a focus for the Neolithic people of South Dorset, as about 3500 BC the long bank barrow was built, suggesting the ridge was seen as a centre of religious importance. The area was abandoned a few centuries later, and it was not until the very end of the Neolithic period, around 2250 BC, that archaeologists have been able to trace any further activity. During the Bronze Age there seems to have been little occupation, although the nearby Frome Valley became a relatively well-populated area. This all changed around 500 BC, when the Iron Age people of the region built their hill-fort there.

Although little trace remains of the settlements created by either the Neolithic settlers or their early Iron Age ancestors, by comparing Maiden Castle with other sites in the area we can see that there seemed to be a tendency for communities to congregate into easily defended settlements during this period, probably due to an increased level of social unrest. The trouble with Maiden Castle is that the

Lordenshaws Hill Fort

Traces of damaged features can be found amid the heather covering the entrance to the hill-fort at Lordenshaws, Northumberland. These suggest that the twin banks were once revetted by stone, although the ramparts were subsequently damaged by later settlement during the Dark Ages. (Courtesy of Keith Durham)

Traces of damaged features can be found amid the heather covering the entrance to the hill-fort at Lordenshaws, Northumberland. These suggest that the twin banks were once revetted by stone, although the ramparts were subsequently damaged by later settlement during the Dark Ages. (Courtesy of Keith Durham)

An unusual feature of the small circular hill-fort at Lordenshaws is that the site is encircled by several small curving banks, while the sides of the track way leading to the fort itself were once partially revetted with stones. It has been suggested that these outer works were used to house livestock, while the inner enclosure was used as a fortified farm. (Courtesy of Keith Durham)

An unusual feature of the small circular hill-fort at Lordenshaws is that the site is encircled by several small curving banks, while the sides of the track way leading to the fort itself were once partially revetted with stones. It has been suggested that these outer works were used to house livestock, while the inner enclosure was used as a fortified farm. (Courtesy of Keith Durham)

ridge itself was farmed during the centuries preceding its excavation, while the hill was also used as a source of stone for local building work. This agriculture and quarrying disturbed much of the fragile evidence left behind by these early people, and only the barest clues remain to suggest how their settlement might have looked. Fortunately we can draw parallels between Maiden Castle and other nearby forts. For example during the late Bronze Age evidence of trade and manufacture can be found in many communities in that part of England. By the time the Iron Age people built their hill-fort much of this activity had ceased, and the people reverted to a purely agrarian economy. Consequently grain storage became important, and the ability to store produce in locations such as hill-forts suggests an increasing level of centralized control over the population. In other words Maiden Castle probably acted as a seat of government for a local tribe, whose influence extended down the Frome Valley to the south-east, and southwards towards the coast at Portland.

There is evidence that the land within this hinterland was extensively farmed during the Iron Age, and that it was considered of good quality. The development of so many hill-forts in the Dorset area during the early Iron Age suggests that this land was contested by neighbouring communities. It was therefore a time of upheaval, when the inhabitants of Maiden Castle needed the security offered by a well-defended hill-fort settlement rather than by scattered farmsteads and unprotected villages.

The earliest traces of structures within the enclosure of Maiden Castle date from around 400 BC, when the hill-fort was expanded to encompass the entire ridge. A series of limited excavations have gone some way to showing how the site developed, but in many cases, where geophysics rather than excavation has to be relied upon, it is impossible to say what structures date from this mid-Iron Age phase of occupation and which were built later. It does appear that the large and slightly ridged plateau that made up the enclosure contained a central metalled road running close to but not along the spine of the ridge, with what might have been non-metalled side roads radiating outwards from the eastern gateway. It seemed the inhabitants avoided building either roadways or structures on the line of the Neolithic barrow, probably out of respect for the dead they imagined lay beneath it.

Archaeologists believe that during the initial stages of the fort's occupation settlement was concentrated near the median ridge of the fort, leaving a lot of open space towards the edges of the ridge. The settlement then expanded outwards. The only clear evidence of these earlier phases has been the discovery of a number of rubbish pits and post-holes in the centre of the fort. Traces of a 'four-poster' hut was discovered - a rectangular structure which has also been found in other Late Iron Age sites, particularly in the hill-forts around the Welsh border. It has been suggested that these structures were too small to represent houses, so it is surmised that the buildings were storage barns. However, it has also been suggested that because these structures were concentrated near the ramparts of the fort they could be watchtowers of some sort, or even platforms built to honour the dead.

We are on firmer ground in the later phases of occupation. Geophysical surveys have shown that an irregular scattering of timber and thatch roundhouses occupied the bulk of the site, interspersed with storage pits and refuse dumps. The

Dunsapie Crag in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh is a small volcanic plug that was surmounted by a tiny Iron Age hill-fort, enclosed within a single bank.Traces of two roundhouses can be seen inside the enclosure, while evidence of contemporary field systems have been found close to the site. (RCAHMS)

excavation conducted during the 1980s also revealed a little more about the occupation of the fort, and a number of these roundhouses were excavated.

The remains of three huts were discovered in 1986, the largest of which measured almost six metres in diameter. These structures were typical of the huts associated with the Iron Age in Britain: wooden circular structures, surrounded by a slight ditch and bank. The building was centred on an open hearth, while traces of an oven were found to one side of this. The main structural timbers of the dwelling consisted of a circle of upright posts holding up a frame of timber beams. The entrance to the hut faced south, and was delineated by a small fence leading onto a limestone walkway. A post-hole suggests that the entrance was once secured by a substantial wooden door. The excavating team also discovered that the structure was in use for a long time, and was rebuilt at least three times during its occupancy.

Cultivation and quarrying has destroyed much of the evidence of other huts on top of the plateau, so all we can do is imagine that during the Late Iron Age the hill-fort contained numerous structures of this type. After all, experimental archaeologists and re-enactors have proved that a hut of the size mentioned above could comfortably house an extended family group of around six adults and children. Given the correlation between the size of the hill-fort and the population it housed discussed previously, we arrive at a projected total of just over 180 huts, housing over a thousand people. This number of buildings seems high, given the need to provide additional space for storage facilities and refuse pits, not to mention workshops, communal buildings and religious centres within the same enclosure.

In the decades before the Roman invasion these underground storage and refuse pits were filled in, an action which may well reflect the influence of the 'C Culture' people within the fort. They were replaced with storage barns, which improved the capacity and the suitability of grain storage within the hill-fort. Even more spectacularly, the huts appear to have been reorganized. Rather than being scattered around the ridge, they were concentrated into rows, a little like modern suburban streets, with each roundhouse enclosure spaced evenly, and far closer to each other than before. A row of three such houses has been uncovered, including one built using stone. The middle house of the three was built on the foundations of an earlier structure, and was even terraced slightly to take advantage of the natural slope. The final house of the three was surrounded by a small gully. All three structures appear to have been repaired during their occupancy, which suggests they remained in use for some considerable time -probably surviving beyond the period of Roman invasion in the mid-1st century AD, roughly a century after the structures were first built.

Maiden Castle

Reconstruction of a hut interior

Maiden Castle, England, AD 43

Maiden Castle is the largest and best-known hill-fort in Britain, its multivallate defences dominating the Dorset countryside.The site is shown as it would have looked at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain In AD 43, when it was almost certainly attacked by a Roman legion. By that stage its defences consisted of a formidable series of banks and ditches, the last of which - the inner rampart of the fort - ran around the edge of the ridge on which the fort stood. A series of archaeological investigations of the site in the 1930s and the 1980s has revealed a lot about how the fort would have looked in this period, when it provided a safe haven for a community of as many as 1,000 people. Granaries and storage chambers occupy the outer parts of the enclosure, while the main habitation area is concentrated towards the centre of the site. The hill-fort is dominated by the complex defences of its two gateways, the most impressive of which is the formidable eastern gateway in the lower right (an earlier version of which is shown in the upper right inset). The series of outer banks and ditches was designed to break up any attack, and to expose the attackers to a hail of javelins and slingshots from both firing platforms on the outer works, and the fighting platform that ringed the inner rampart. It has been suggested that the roundhouses in front of the gateway served as guard huts.

Reconstruction of a hut interior

Huts Fortification

Floor plan of the later Roman temple and house located in this area (c.AD 380)

This reorganization of the houses suggests a major social change at Maiden Castle. Firstly, it shows that whoever was in charge of the community was able to change the basic structure of everyday life for what he or she probably saw as the greater good. Archaeologist and the 1986 excavation director Niall Sharpies argued that:

The construction of regimented rows of houses may have been an attempt to break down the extended kinship ties of individual families and strengthen the importance of the larger urban community. The variation of house design, however, suggests that the identity of the individuals had not been totally absorbed by whatever collective ideals were in force and is in marked contrast to the situation in some other hill-forts.

This reorganization of the enclosure inevitably involved a major upheaval for the community, and for the first time the presence of residential and communal areas can be traced within the interior of the hill-fort. Large areas appear to have been devoted to grain storage, as the remains of storage barns - the structures which replaced the earlier grain storage pits - have been discovered. It seems as if the people who ran the community wanted to be able to feed a larger population than normal in the event of an attack, or needed additional grain to feed a workforce brought in from the surrounding countryside to help improve the defences of the hill-fort. Grain storage also helped provide a means of currency and exchange in the rural Iron Age economy, and its presence would have helped encourage the creation of specialized trades and industries, where labour was paid in either cash or grain. After all, the Belgae used coinage, which suggests that by the time the Romans arrived the economy of Maiden Castle was based both on agrarian production and on trade and manufacture, thereby mirroring the activity found in the region during the Bronze Age.

After the Roman invasion of AD 43 and the slighting of the gatehouse defences by the Roman army, this well-organized social structure appears

Gatehouse Defence

The Iron Age Broch of Midhowe is located on the shore of the Orkney island of Rousay. Like the nearby broch settlement at Gurness, it is surrounded by stone outbuildings, protected by an outlying stone-revetted bank. (Historic Scotland)

to have broken down. For the next few decades the population appeared to decline steadily, and buildings were once again scattered across the site rather than grouped together in streets. Only one house from this period was firmly identified in the 1980s, but it is clear that some if not most of the later 'suburban' houses fell into disuse. Other evidence of occupation is sparse, although Professor Wheeler uncovered the remains of five houses and several storage pits as well as an iron-working area that he associated with the period immediately after the Roman invasion. There was also evidence that the settlement spilled out through the disused eastern gateway and that buildings were established within the banks of the fort's outworks beyond the gate. At the same time many of the outlying ditches were filled, suggesting a change of emphasis from defence to accessibility. The settlement was abandoned a few decades later, as the regional centre of power shifted two miles east to the new Roman civitas peregrina (regional capital) of Durnovaria (Dorchester).

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  • ruby
    What did maiden castle look like in celtic times?
    7 years ago
    Which period is Maiden Castle?
    8 months ago

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