History explorer: life in the Iron Age

Professor Niall Sharples discusses Maiden Castle, site of Britain's largest hillfort, with Nige Tassell

An aerial image of Maiden Castle, site of Britain's largest hillfort. (Photo by Robert Harding/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Don’t let the name deceive you. While it sounds as though it might be of medieval vintage, perhaps the domicile of one of Henry VIII’s divorced wives, Maiden Castle is far older. Dominating a hill a couple of miles south-west of the Dorset county town of Dorchester, it represents one of the largest Iron Age hillforts in Europe.

More than two millennia on, it remains an awesome, imposing sight, a vast yet elaborate system of ramparts that overlap each other and double-back on themselves. These boundaries would have offered a stern test to anyone intent on breeching them; the steep ditches they form are better described as ravines.

The plateau – the interior of the hill-fort that’s cocooned inside several rows of increasingly tall ramparts – offers terrific views of the undulating landscape of south Dorset. It’s a panorama that would still be very much recognisable to an Iron Age settler. One view that would be alien to them, though, a mile or so to the north, is that of Poundbury, the Prince of Wales-commissioned experimental new town/model village with its jumble of new-builds inspired by several different architectural periods.

Maiden Castle, or at least the site of it, has lived through several different periods, from the early Neolithic Age when a small ceremonial enclosure was established, right through to the Roman era and beyond. Its history is, as Professor Niall Sharples notes, “very long and complicated”.

Spanning the centuries

Professor Sharples has studied Maiden Castle and other hillforts for decades, making him ideally placed to explain the site’s comparatively rapid transformation during the Iron Age. “The first stage was a small hillfort at the eastern end which, around 400–300 BC, became a very large hillfort. For another couple of hundred years they worked on building the ramparts and making those more complicated. They were building and rebuilding and remodelling the ramparts, and the hillfort got bigger and bigger in this period. Around 200 BC they stopped messing around with the ramparts but continued to live inside the hillfort right up until the Roman conquest.”

You might expect – from the word ‘hill-fort’ – ‘they’ to be soldiers and for these forts to be purely military installations. But their name is something of a misnomer. “It leads you into thinking that they’re forts in military terms,” says Professor Sharples. “Perhaps ‘monumentally bounded enclosures at topographically defined locations’ would be a more accurate, but very boring, description of them.”

Rather than house a military population, these hillforts – of which there are more than 4,000 examples across Britain and Ireland – were home to communities of civilians. Maiden Castle’s community was larger than most. “I’ve estimated that, in around 200 BC when the hillfort was at its largest, there were about 1,300 people living there. That’s based on the number of houses I found in one area and how many people lived in a house. But if anything that’s an underestimate.”

That Maiden Castle could have been home to a population of that size (or larger) is perfectly credible. The site is so vast that it could accommodate 50 football pitches. Walking the undulating perimeter rampart takes a full 45 minutes, even striding out at a decent lick. These days, its chalky slopes are occupied only by non-human inhabitants – gangs of nonplussed sheep and, judging from the innumerable setts, a sizeable badger population.

Agrarian community

Archaeology has proved that the inhabitants during the hillfort’s heyday, more than 2,000 years ago, were just regular people. “Most of the finds have been pretty mundane,” explains Professor Sharples. “The communities that lived in hillforts were not the people who had the Iron Age bling that we think of – the Snettisham gold torcs or the swords and spears found in the Thames. Those items were from societies where warfare became a symbolic duel between aristocrats, and that’s not what we have in hillforts like Maiden Castle. Most of the finds have been basic objects that tell us about the economy, such as pottery and tools. They might be mundane, but they do help to give us a picture of everyday life.

“They were an autonomous community. One of the significances of the ramparts and the boundaries is to emphasise this autonomy and self-sufficiency. We particularly see that in the amount of storage facilities in the hillfort. One of the main archaeological structures that you find in the interior of the hillfort was used to store grain. They buried grain underground in big pits and sealed it so that it was preserved. This ability to grow cereal crops and store them in very large quantities was a really major statement about the independence of the hillfort and the self-reliance of its community.”

Furthermore, the actual construction of the ramparts offered shared identity in these times when the notion of community was in its ascendance. “In the previous period, people lived in small farmsteads, living as families – independently in the countryside, independently in their fields. The appearance of hillforts marked the coming-together of several of these families into a community. With a number of families being involved in this construction, it bound them together. By building this enclosure and knowing they could retreat there if there was any kind of argy-bargy, they created a sense of belonging and a sense of being part of a much larger community than the single family that they lived in before.”

The vastness and complexity of the Maiden Castle defences would offer a show of strength, a flexing of muscle, by its community towards anyone wanting to encroach. You could certainly imagine, in the bleak midwinter, this to have been a harsh, intimidating and unforgiving place to any potential interloper. On a sunny afternoon in the 21st century, it’s somewhat less sinister, despite the best efforts of the cawing rooks riding the air currents.

As impressive as its ramparts appear, Maiden Castle wasn’t completely impregnable however, as Professor Sharples reveals. “The defences were not as good as they could be. The size made it very difficult to man that circuit. And because of its complexity and the way it wraps itself around the hill, it created blind spots, places where groups could hide within the defences. To put a series of defenders on the ramparts all the way around would require a massive community, which it probably didn’t have.”

South-west England – along with Wales and the Scottish Borders – boasts many hundreds of hillforts. During the middle Iron Age (around 300–200 BC), upwards of 80 per cent of the population are thought to have lived in hillforts here in Dorset. In the flatter landscape of eastern England, this figure was dramatically lower though. Professor Sharples believes that less than 1 per cent of the population of present-day Essex lived in such communities at this time.

Not that the heavy concentration of hill-forts in the south-west proves that they were connected, that there was mutuality between communities. “Some people think of them as some sort of strategic arrangement, but I don’t think this at all. I think they’re essentially in opposition to each other. The main thing is competition with the neighbours. I’m not one of those people who thinks the Iron Age was peaceful and wonderful. I think the Iron Age was a nasty, violent place where people were going round killing each other all the time.”

Violent eviction

The Iron Age community at Maiden Castle rapidly declined following the Roman conquest in AD 43. Professor Sharples has found evidence of a Roman garrison being established within the hillfort’s interior, by which time the population would have been removed, most likely forcibly.

“They were probably turfed out pretty quickly. There was certainly some violence. There were quite a large number of people in the cemetery in the eastern entrance who had been hacked to death very violently by Romans. Whether that occurred during the conquest or during rebellions later on, we’re not sure. But hacked to death they certainly were.” Many of the survivors resettled down the hill in the newly established Roman town of Durnovaria, now better known as Dorchester.

The size and scale of Maiden Castle – and the comparatively small degree to which it has been excavated – means that the site still holds many secrets yet to be revealed to present-day visitors to the English Heritage-managed site, which today are a combination of holidaying schoolchildren, German motorcyclists and local dog-walkers.

Professor Sharples in particular would be excited to uncover those secrets. “My excavations were very short-lived,” he says, “so we still don’t understand the overall plan of the settlement. It’s quite possible that, in its heyday, there were special places – possibly religious temples, possibly open-air plazas where decision-making could take place for the community. But we haven’t excavated enough to know that. We only have a very small-scale keyhole excavation of the interior, so having a big-area excavation that gives us an understanding of how it developed through time would be very, very useful.

“There are bound to be other things that surprise us, too. Archaeology is a discipline that’s built on surprises and there are any number of things that could be in that hillfort that we’ve never guessed about or understood. Anything could be there.”

Iron Age hillforts: five more places to explore

1) Tre’r Ceiri (Llŷn Peninsula, North Wales)

Where 150 Iron Age houses remain

The setting for Tre’r Ceiri (‘Town of the Giants’) couldn’t be more dramatic: 450 metres above sea level atop the mountain of Yr Eifi and overlooking the Irish Sea. Fantastically preserved, there are remains of 150 stone dwellings and some ramparts are still close to their original full height.

Visit coflein.gov.uk

2) Yeavering Bell (Wooler, Northumberland)

Where the buildings were once pink

On the edge of the Cheviot Hills, this is a twin-peaked hill around which a 12-acre hillfort, the largest in the North East, grew. When first constructed, its buildings, made using the local andesite stone, would have been pink in appearance before turning a weather-beaten grey.

Visit northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

3) Cissbury Ring (Worthing, West Sussex)

Where the sea views are stunning

The second-largest hillfort in England after Maiden Castle, Cissbury Ring stands proud as one of the South Downs’ most prominent landmarks. While its ramparts aren’t as elaborate, it is nonetheless an awe-inspiring location with tremendous views across the English Channel.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk

4) Mither Tap of Bennachie (Bennachie, Aberdeenshire)

Where walking boots are required

Over 500 metres above sea level, Mither Tap is believed to date from around 1000 BC. Although in a more ruinous state than other hillforts, excavations have revealed the existence of at least 10 roundhouses within its interior.

Visit www.walkhighlands.co.uk

5) British Camp (Colwall, Herefordshire)

Where the ramparts are striking

Likened to the layers of a wedding cake, the earthworks of British Camp, on top of Herefordshire Beacon, are especially fascinating. As with Maiden Castle, several distinct phases of construction increased the scale – and thus the prestige – of this particularly striking hillfort. A Norman castle was later built on the site.

Visit malvernbeacon.com

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Niall Sharples is professor in archaeology at Cardiff University. Words: Nige Tassell.