Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll

Maiden Castle is the largest hill fort in Britain and one of the largest in Europe. Built in 600 BC and greatly expanded in 450 BC, the fort is on top of a large hill which is 914 m long, that’s about as long as 10 football pitches. In the Iron Age, hundreds of people lived there

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

The best-known of all Dorset’s hillforts, Maiden Castle has larger defences than any other hillfort in the country. They didn’t do the defenders much good against the invading Romans, though.

Dorset is a good county for hillforts, sharing with neighbours Hampshire and Wiltshire the highest density of hillforts in the country. Counties didn’t exist when hillforts were built, of course – hillforts started to be built about 600BC, more than a thousand years before the counties began to emerge – but there are about thirty of them in the county, only a handful inaccessible.

Some hillforts stayed small and simple with just one bank and ditch, but others got larger with more defences and elaborate entrances. The Romans conquered Britain in 43AD, overrunning the hillforts, which were deserted soon afterwards. Because they were on hilltops, the later developments of towns and villages avoided hillforts, which were left empty, used for grazing and only very occasionally re-used as defended places.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

The great ramparts of Eggardon Hill show how the constructors of hillforts used natural features to their advantage

Some archaeological earthworks are difficult to understand, but hillforts are easy: their positions on the tops of hills, with big ditches, banks and complicated entrances, are clearly defensive. We know from Roman descriptions of Iron Age tribes on the continent that they were keen on war, and the very existence of hillforts shows that the Iron Age here was not peaceful. Sophisticated archaeologists have suggested that status also played its part – my hillfort is bigger than your hillfort? Certainly Iron Age people had gone well beyond subsistence farming; the amount of labour needed to create somewhere like Maiden Castle is enormous, and all that labour had to be taken away from farming.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

Hod Hill, with a Roman fort tucked into one corner. The steep slope down to the Stour, now wooded (left foreground), meant that only a single rampart was needed on that side.

Hillforts in Dorset come in seemingly every size, with Hod Hill, Maiden Castle and Hambledon Hill the very largest in their latest phases, enclosing 54, 47 and 31 acres respectively. The smallest hillforts like Abbotsbury enclose only 4.5 acres. Most of the rest are 15 to 20 acres. It is surprising that Maiden Castle is actually smaller than Hod Hill, but Maiden Castle does have the largest area of defences of any hillfort in the country.

The banks were made from the chalk dug out of the ditches, and when new must have been shining white. Sometimes timbers were used to reinforce the banks, and at Maiden Castle limestone walls, like drystone walls, were built to revet the bottoms of the banks in the entrances. These entrances could be very complicated, forcing intruders to twist through paths where the defenders could attack them easily.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

The whole point of hillforts was to provide extensive views, to the benefit of today’s walkers. This is the view south to the sea from Pilsdon Pen.

Archaeologists used to think that hillforts were used only as refuges in times of war, but excavations at Maiden Castle and other hillforts show that they were filled with houses and must have been lived in all the time. One of the reasons that hillforts were thought to be occupied only in times of trouble is the difficulty of watering cattle, sheep and horses on the top of dry hills. These animals need large quantities of water to survive and it would all have to be carried up and stored, or the animals driven down to streams. This seems difficult for permanent settlements, and indeed no-one from Roman times through to today wanted to live on these dry, windy hilltops. Nor were hillforts the only Iron Age settlements. There were also farms on more sensible sites on the slopes and in the valleys. These had just a few huts and often only a slight bank and ditch, suitable for keeping the domestic animals away from the houses.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

The erosion of the cliff at the western end of Worbarrow Bay has cut Flowers Barrow in half

Vespasian (later Emperor) was one of the commanders in charge of the Roman invasion of Britain, and his biography says that in the south of Britain, he captured more than 20 oppida. This is not the word the Romans used for their own, properly civilised towns, but it certainly implies an urban settlement. These oppida must have been hillforts, and indeed two Dorset hillforts which have been excavated have evidence of the Roman Conquest: Maiden Castle, with the cemetery of those killed in the battle, and Hod Hill, where there are lots of ballista bolts from Roman weapons.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

Rawlsbury Camp is one of the smaller but more attractive hillforts, with excellent views to the north over the Blackmore Vale, and south to the Dorsetshire Gap

The most famous part of any hillfort is the war cemetery at Maiden Castle, where 34 skeletons, most of them with cuts on their bones from fighting, were buried. They almost all have grave goods – pots, and the bones of joints of meat, brooches and iron weapons. Women as well as men had injuries. One (male) skeleton had a Roman arrowhead lodged in his spine. These must be the people killed when the Romans invaded, buried by their surviving comrades. The discovery of this cemetery in the 1930s during excavations by Sir Mortimer Wheeler caused a sensation. The arrowhead in the spine symbolises the clash of two cultures and the end of the Iron Age in southern Britain.

Many of Dorset’s largest and best-preserved hillforts are on the chalk of the county’s downlands. Some have not been ploughed inside since the Iron Age, and so slight circular earthworks show where the huts were at Eggardon, Chalbury and Hod Hill in particular. Some hillforts enclosed earlier barrows, and at Hod Hill a Roman fort was tucked into the corner of the Iron Age fort. After they were deserted, the defences eroded until they made comfortable, stable slopes, filling the ditches to a surprising depth – eight to ten feet at Maiden Castle.

Maiden Castle to Penbury Knoll | Dorset Life

Badbury Rings, seen here from the north-east, is the only Dorset hillfort filled with ornamental trees. The Roman road from Salisbury just clips the edge of the hillfort and heads off towards Dorchester.

What is impossible to see is the complexity and density of the settlements inside. Excavations at Maiden Castle showed varying size of huts, many hearths and big, deep pits which had originally been used to store grain and were then filled with rubbish. This rubbish includes pottery, bones etc, and from these groups archaeologists have been able to work out the dating of the finds, so the full sequence of construction and occupation can be properly dated. It is lucky that pottery shapes change steadily over time.

The hillforts are amazing remnants from our distant past, surviving because the original earthworks were so large and no one else wanted to live on hilltops. For two thousand years they have been quietly grazed by sheep and other animals, of no use except when a group of Saxon or Civil War soldiers needed ready-made defences. Today all of them make good walks – high, with wide views and often good flowers. All those listed here are accessible by footpath, although most require a stiff climb.