Maiden Castle, earthwork banks
Maiden Castle, earthwork banks
Maiden Castle is the largest and most famous pre-Roman fortress in Britain. The site is not a "castle" in the medieval sense of the term, but a hilltop enclosure defended by high banks and ditches. Maiden Castle is nearly 47 acres in size, with banks as high as 80 feet. The term "maiden" may be misleading; it derives from the pre-Celtic (Brythonic) term "mai dun", which is usually translated as "great hill", but may also be rendered as "principle fort".

A causewayed camp was erected on the hill as far back as 3500 BCE, and later a bank barrow measuring an impressive 1800 feet was added. Sometime around 350 BCE the hill was turned into a full-fledged hill fort, probably under the direction of the Durotriges tribe, the region's dominant Celtic tribe.

Most of the visible ramparts were erected in the 1st century BC. These consist of three concentric rings of ditches and banks, with the entrance through each bank offset to isolate any invader who managed to penetrate the defenses.

Main entrance defenses of Maiden Castle
The main entrance defensive earthworks
In 43 AD the Romans under Vespasian besieged the "castle". The defender's huge store of some 40,000 sling stones brought up from nearby Chesil Beach proved useless against the Roman's leather shields, and Maiden Castle fell to the invaders. A mass grave of 38 defenders who died in the assault was found in 1937 near the eastern entrance. Each defender had been laid to rest with a joint of meat and a flagon of beer to take with them into the afterlife; a testament to the high regard the Romans must have had for the courage of their foes.

During the 4th century the Romans erected a small temple within the boundaries of the fort, the foundations of which can still be seen.

Operated by English Heritage, Maiden Castle is open all year at any reasonable time.