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Maiden Castle, Dorset

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006

The iron age hill fort at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, provides evidence of what Britain was like before the Romans came and how the Romans stamped their authority on the new province.

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Maiden Castle Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Maiden Castle is the largest Iron Age Hill Fort in Britain, and a spectacular testimony to the power of the tribal leaders in Iron Age Britain. The enormous ramparts and ditches would have been dug out by hand, to provide refuge in times of crisis. It's clear from sites like Maiden Castle that things were far from peaceful across Britain long before the Romans invaded. Tribes would have been frequently at war with their neighbours.

Once the Romans did invade, then they needed to crush tribal resistance and so headed straight for the forts to stamp their authority on the new province.

Evidence of what happened when the Romans arrived at Maiden Castle was uncovered by the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who spent four summers excavating on the site between 1934 and 1937. His report made dramatic reading, describing how the Roman forces set fire to the settlement, stormed the gates and 'savagely cut down' men and women, young and old.

Subsequent excavations in 1985 have been able to provide new information and have led to a re-interpretation of some of his work. There is a suggestion, for instance, that the burnt layers of charcoal which Wheeler took as evidence of the torching of the site may in fact be the result of iron working.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976) was born in Glasgow. He was director of the National Museum of Wales in 1920, and keeper of The London Museum 1926-1944. In 1948 it was his delight to become professor of archaeology of the Roman Provinces at the Institute of Archaeology in London. He was knighted in 1952.

He carried out excavations at Colchester in 1920, at Maiden Castle from 1934 to 1937 and at St Albans. He was well known for his "trench system" style of excavation. Perhaps because of his military background, he was a great organiser and carried out probably the biggest and best-run excavations of the period. He was also a great populariser of archaeology, actually encouraging people to visit sites and even offering souvenirs for sale. His excavation at Maiden Castle was the culmination of his career in Britain.

Maiden Casle is found on the outskirts of Dorchester,  by signposted road off A354. Site can be accessed at any time.





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