The Great Earthly Curves Mystery: what, when and why?

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I could also throw in a ‘who ’ and ‘where’? So what’s your best guess on the identity of this marvellously curvaceous earthwork? No forward peeking. Here’s another shot.

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While you’re pondering, I should say that in a former life, in a long ago era that my knees think could well be the Lower Paleolithic, I studied Prehistory and Archaeology. That’s a clue.

Okay. Here’s the whole thing.

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1935 and 1937 aerial photographs taken by Major George Allen and  in the possession of the Ashmolean Museum.

Both images are in the public domain.

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These, then, are the ramparts of Maiden Castle, one of  Britain’s most famous Late Bronze Age – Iron Age hill forts.  After two thousand years of wear and tear, the whole structure seems to have simply grown from the natural contours of  the Dorset uplands. Of course when they were first excavated, with simple picks, incalculable people-hours, and much project management, the banks would have been higher still, and the ditches more sharply ankle-breaking; in their pristine state of freshly exposed chalk, they would have glistened white across the land and been visible for miles. 

And so in the past this place would have looked utterly magnificent, and other-worldly too, perhaps the equivalent of seeing a shimmering giant spaceship looming over the countryside; and perhaps that was the point. Or at least one of the reasons for its existence. This place was not only defensive, a signifier of tribal authority, but probably also the place of seasonal sacred gatherings, a place of pilgrimage in some sense.

In fact a metaphysical aspect for this location is indicated across four millennia. The first human activity dates from around 4,000 BC when people of the Neolithic or New Stone Age built a prominently sited enclosure. The banks were low and hardly banks at all. Nor were they continuous, so it seems unlikely that it was made for defence. It appears to have been a place where people gathered for social and sacred reasons rather than in times of enemy attack. The burials of two children that were found there date from this time.

Then around 3000 BC, after the enclosure was no longer used, a large ditched barrow was built. It apparently contained no burial, but may still have been a meeting place and important ritual landmark. Again, both the enclosure and the later barrow would have been bright white when newly made.  Over three thousand years later, in late Roman times when Roman beliefs had fused somewhat with local beliefs, a small Romano-British temple was built there.

In between, the site was used by Bronze Age farmers who left behind traces of their fields, then around 600 BC the first hill fort was constructed. At first it was much like the many other hill forts that were being built at this time across Britain. It was not especially impressive, and enclosed around 6.4 hectares (16 acres). But around 450 BC it underwent a massive expansion, involving the enclosure of two hill tops. The defended area increased to 19 hectares (47 acres) which, the English Heritage guide tells visitors, is equivalent to 50 football pitches. Also at this time the defences became very complex, and the banks were raised to a height of 8.4 metres (28 feet). In other words, it was an extraordinary feat of engineering and manual labour. It was a statement of power, capacity and authority. It was a place that people looked up to in every sense.

Maiden Castle is also unusual is that, unlike many other hill forts, there is evidence that people lived there. These people were the Celtic Durotriges. Excavations have revealed that they  lived in thatched round houses, grew wheat and barley which they stored in granaries and kept sheep, pigs and cattle. Doubtless they would have had horses for transport and oxen for ploughing. Iron was worked on the site. Then there were the piles of round stones, strategically placed around the fort. These were probably used for slingshot, and suggest that  an attack was expected.

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More curves in this reconstruction of an Iron Age round house. Photo: Creative Commons, WyrdLight.com

It appears, too, that  the expected siege did take place. During the 1930s excavations of Maiden Castle, Sir Mortimer Wheeler uncovered part of a cemetery. Of the 52 bodies excavated, a number showed signs of a violent death. This, Sir Mortimer concluded, was evidence of an attack by Vespasian’s legionaries during the Roman invasion of AD 43. In 2009, a burial site with 50 decapitated bodies was discovered not far from Maiden Castle during road building, and according to Roman historical accounts, Vespasian conquered some 20 hill forts across the Durotriges’ territory.

By the time the Romans arrived, Britain had long been a prosperous country inhabited by a number of different Celtic tribal groups. It was not a backwater as we might imagine. The Romans, after all, were coming for a reason, not out of idle curiosity. For two hundred years before the invasion, Celtic traders had well-established markets in Europe.

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Iron Age Shield found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London. Photo: Creative Commons, Wikipedia.

Their inlaid gold-, silver- and ironwork was exquisite (and endlessly curvy)  – torcs, brooches, shields, swords. They made fantastic weather-proof felted capes. They exported surplus grain from the numerous farmsteads whose traces still remain across Britain’s landscape. They sold slaves, and hunting dogs. In return, they imported amphorae of olive oil and wine, amber and ivory jewellery. It was a moneyed economy.

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Gold torc from the Snettisham Hoard, Norfolk. Photo; Creative Commons, (Wikipedia).

Below is an example of a Durotriges gold stater. Coin experts point out that it shows an abstracted Celtic version of the head of Apollo (left) and a dismembered horse (right).  The finds of such coins have been used to plot the extent of Durotriges territory – that is, from East Devon, across Dorset, and including southern Wiltshire. By AD 70 they had become Romanized, and were part of the Roman Province of Britannia. The process of urbanizing the Durotriges occurred, then, not at Maiden Castle, but down on the banks of the River Frome at what is now Dorchester. During this time the hill fort was apparently abandoned, and not apparently used again  until the building of the 4th century temple.

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Photo: Creative Commons:  Numisantica (http://www.numisantica.com/)

But to come back to the curvy earthworks and their purpose. Many archaeologists have argued that hill forts of Maiden Castle’s scale and impressiveness belong to the category of defensive tribal strongholds known as oppida. These are found across Europe – from Spain to the Hungarian plain.  In other words, they could be described as proto-towns.

Yet this notion of incipient urban development does not fit the the hundreds of British hill forts that show absolutely no sign of permanent occupation, nor of warfare for that matter. Because there is one BIG disadvantage to occupying a hill fort for any length of time, and that is access to fresh water. The need to bring it in makes the occupants highly vulnerable in all sorts of ways.

All that can be said with certainty is that these structures were of huge importance to the people who built them. The effort that went into their construction, the periods of rebuilding over several centuries tells us this. We can also surmise that the cultures who produced them were prosperous and highly organised. Building these hill top structures required people-power, and from a population who mostly lived elsewhere in defended farmsteads. The building of them could only happen when there was no demanding farm work, probably between planting and harvest time, when digging conditions were favourable. But then if the Celts were known to trade in slaves, then presumably they also had their own.  Perhaps these impressive monuments were built by slaves?

Another thing that we often make mistakes over, is that non-industrialised people do not, and probably never did, divide up their reality into strict divisions of sacred and profane as we do. All reality is sacred in some sense. From our position of self-appointed technologised loftiness we often refer to such belief systems as ‘superstition’, while engaging with our own spirits of consumption in shopping malls and coffee shops. But if people did not occupy these hill forts permanently, then for practical purposes, whether as defensive retreats or the meeting place for the seasonal ceremonies of scattered Celtic clans – the need for a striking location that everyone could find would be paramount. A place where beacons could be lit and seen for miles, where raw rock ramparts would float in the sky like a mirage.

Perhaps there was indeed a need to feel secure from enemies and wildlife while serious rituals were being conducted. But then high banks may also be used to contain sound as an amphitheatre does – the chanting of storytellers, the pronouncements of seers and leaders. Also a hilltop is closer to the spirit world, to God, the Creator, to Heaven; it is a place half way between the mundane and the sublime. And just because a sacred thanksgiving is going on, it does not exclude the possibility for horse trading and dowry negotiation, or for storytelling contests and trials of warrior strength, or displays of obedience from hunting dogs.

So: the great earthwork mystery remains largely unsolved. Perhaps it does not matter. When we visit such places we know they are special; if we allow ourselves to respond, that is enough. With that thought in mind, it is fitting to end with a literary connection. Maiden Castle of course loomed large on the creative landscape of Thomas Hardy, famous son of Dorchester. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the hill fort provides a dramatic setting where would-be lovers seemingly meet by chance.

“Elizabeth, as has been said, often took her walks on the Budmouth Road, and Farfrae as often made it convenient to create an accidental meeting with her there. Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via — for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire — to a distance of two or three miles, his object being to read the progress of affairs between Farfrae and his charmer.”

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Some final earthwork curves: Bury Ditches, Shropshire

26 thoughts on “The Great Earthly Curves Mystery: what, when and why?

  1. Can’t remember when, but after arriving at the top of Maiden Castle and taking stock, James and I spontaneously ran down screaming war cries. Just happened. What you might call a site specific event!

    1. Yay, Bricknell. That was a thrilling thing to do. Sort of like Lisa Minelli at the end of Cabaret with trains, only you with prehistoric monuments.

  2. As a teenager my desire was to be an archeologist. Did not quite make it but these posts, tv shows grab my attention every time , Tish. Absolutely fascinating. Just loved the history of England, when I visited, and hope to do so again before the body wears out.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this. And don’t think of bodily wear. ‘If you don’t run you rust’ to quote Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It doesn’t have to be actual running…

  3. Enormously, enormously fascinating. I loved this. It’s Sunday morning for me. I have coffee in bed & just read this. So intriguing!

  4. Tish, this sentence particularly resonated: “All reality is sacred in some sense.” Your way of writing on this subject made me think once again of one of my all time favorite books: Boudica – Dreaming the .. I – IV by Manda Scott.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Hanne. And yes, strangely, I also had Manda Scott in mind when I was writing the piece. She now lives in my home county of Shropshire, where we have lots of Iron Age hillforts, and though I have not read all the books in the Boudica series, the first volume did have a special resonance for me. It made me think about the Celtic reverence for the natural world and all its wonders. Your photos, by the way, are stunning.

      1. Tish, wow that is really interesting! I read all Boudica books within 2 weeks and missed the characters for weeks after 🙂 Rarely have I read books that captured me so profoundly page after page and where the characters are so alive! I was deeply fascinated by the interaction of the dreamers and the warriors. It sounds like you live in an extraordinary place must be very inspiring.

  5. With posts like this one, I really don’t mind that you haven’t come up with a fresh one. I appreciate the information and your knowledge and research behind curvy earth mounds. Thank you, Tish.

  6. Smashing read.
    The issue of water is indeed a conundrum.
    In more serious structures such as Masada there were wells.
    Has nothing similar ever been uncovered in these hill forts?

    I explored very little growing up in England. Sad, but true.
    Maybe I’ll get the chance to do so before I op my clogs as they say?

    1. Am a bit out of touch with recent finds, but my impression is that most of these hill forts had no ready access to water within them. Some don’t seem to have been lived in, but just used in time of need/congregation etc. Lack of water is of course a big flaw defensively speaking.

      1. A major flaw, one would think. Certainly suggests permanent habitation was likely out of the question.
        Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said.

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