The ancient British hill fort now known as Maiden Castle (from mai-dun, Celtic for “great hill”), about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) southwest of modern Dorchester, grew from a neolithic village to become the largest pre-Roman fortress among nearly 1,400 in England. Indeed, it was one of the most extensive in western Europe. Still visible 2,000 years after its massive ramparts were completed, the fort crowns a low saddleback chalk hill south of the Frome Valley. Its strength did not lie (as in the case of others) in its siting, but rather in the sheer size and scale of its fortifications. By the middle of the first century b.c., four rings of ditches and steeply sloping earthen walls, in places as much as 90 feet (28 meters) high and reinforced by timber palisades or drystone structures, occupied an area of 100 acres (40 hectares). Within the defenses, the long axis of the fort is over 0.5 mile (0.8 kilometer) and its inner circumference about 1.5 miles. It was a remarkable engineering achievement, not only in terms of its monumentality, but also because of its organic nature, by which it grew over twenty centuries.
Maiden Castle has a long prehistory, revealed by archeological studies first undertaken by Mortimer Wheeler in 1934–1938; further excavation took place in 1985–1986 under the direction of Niall Sharples. The first earthwork was a neolithic causewayed camp (ca. 4000 b.c.) consisting of a single ditch and bank
defending an area of about 12 acres (4.8 hectares). It was followed after half a century by a 1,750-foot-long (537-meter) bank barrow, crossing the center of the fort from east to west. About 1,000 years later settlers built burial mounds on the site, after which it seems to have been abandoned for some time.
After about 700 b.c. various tribes settled Britain, and most of the southwestern region now known as Somerset and Dorset was occupied by the Durotriges. They secured their lands against rival tribes with hill forts: such places as Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, South Cadbury, Spettisbury Rings, and of course Maiden Hill, which some scholars suggest was their capital. Around 600 b.c. these Iron Culture settlers incorporated the existing earthworks into their own defenses—an earth rampart augmented by a timber palisade—enclosing about 15 acres (6 hectares) at the east end of the saddleback. There was continual growth: limestone walls were added to parts of the ramparts, and it seems that around 450 b.c. a westward extension was constructed. Sometime before the third century b.c., the encircling fortifications were enlarged, and entrances with double gates were constructed at the east and west ends; the entire hilltop—some 45 acres (18.2 hectares)—was secured. The height of the earth walls was increased, perhaps late in the second century b.c., and yet another rampart and ditch were built around the perimeter. Further enlargement took place a century later. Although it may be that not all Dorset hill forts were continuously occupied, and that some were simply used as havens in times of danger, evidence suggests that Maiden Hill was a permanent settlement, and at the middle of the first century a.d. perhaps 5,000 people were living within what they believed to be the safety of its walls. There were made streets, and archeologists have discovered graves, storage pits, and other pits for refuse—it might be said, sanitary landfill.
The Romans launched a full-scale invasion of Britain in a.d. 43, moving westward across the country. The Roman historian Suetonius claims that twenty of the southwest hill forts fell quickly to the II Augusta Legion, come from Strasbourg under the general Titus Flavius Vespasianus (later to become Emperor Vespasian). They reached Maiden Castle within the year. The Durotriges were renowned warriors, accustomed to hand-to-hand combat. At longer range, they used slings and were prepared to defend their town with them: ammunition dumps within the ramparts held a reserve of 40,000 large pebbles brought from Chesil Beach. The Romans chose to turn their war machines against the well-defended east gate, defended by slingers on its four ramparts. Overwhelmed by the weight of numbers and the superior tactics and weapons technology of the invaders—especially the catapults that launched missiles from beyond the slingers’ range—Maiden Castle surrendered, although not before offering savage resistance.
After three millennia the huge, spectacular hill fort had become obsolete, and it was abandoned within about thirty-five years. Many of the former inhabitants moved to the new Roman town of Durnovaria (Dorchester), others to the century-old Celtic village in the shadow of Maiden Castle. In about A.D. 370 the Romans built a temple in the precincts of the fort, but it too was abandoned when they withdrew from Britain only 100 years later. The site is now maintained and managed by English Heritage.