Dorset Stories and Tips

1. Maiden Castle: Wessex Heights

They couldn't withstand Vespasian's Second Legion Photo, Dorset, England


"I seem where I before my birth, and after death may be."
- Thomas Hardy, "Wessex Heights"

I’d come to rural Dorset to retreat from the grim present into the restful past. I’d planned to spend my days roaming the villages of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and my nights sitting in some cozy pub, thumbing through my dog-eared copy of that loveliest of Hardy tales, Under the Greenwood Tree.

Instead, in the pubs in the evening, the talk was all of war. Locals clustered at the bar, talking earnestly over their pints. Upon hearing my American accent, I’d often be asked, "Where are you from? " "Washington, D.C.," I’d reply, then let that fact age a bit before ending the awkward interval by making some casual remark about the insanity of the current situation. My interlocutors would then relax, ever so subtly but noticeably, as they leaned toward me, including me in the conversational group.

Oh, the war was not to be dismissed or avoided; nightly the assembled company hashed things over, an endless round of impotent speculation. Everyone expressed unwavering support for the troops, but most, like me, felt the rush to war was pure folly.

In contrast to these nightly war conferences, by day I made dutiful efforts to push the impending conflict from mind. What better refuge from the present than the past? The past is written; the past is safe – or so I told myself.

On my second day in Dorchester, I visited the Dorset County Museum. Museums, after all, are such predictable, improving places. Indeed, the museum in Dorset is a fine one, but I found myself interested not in its displays of Hardy memorabilia or other curios from my pet era, Victorian England. Instead, I was drawn to dimly lit displays of Iron Age artifacts, particularly a case containing the skeletons of two Celtic warriors found at Maiden Castle, a nearby Iron Age hill fort.

I spent more time contemplating these macabre relics than seemed warranted, but something about them struck a sympathetic chord. They lay side by side, intertwined in an eloquent admixture of ossa. One skeleton had an iron weapon tip embedded in his spine, while the other’s skull had been pierced with a Roman pilum, a long lance-like weapon.

These ancient warriors had died defending Maiden Castle from Vespasian’s invading Roman legions during the first century AD. Had they died, comrades in arms, struck down at the same moment? Or had they merely been flung together in a common grave, the corpses of two strangers commingling in death? My fancy urged me to adopt the former scenario.

I’d not forgotten my basic Roman history. I hadn’t suffered through four years of high school Latin without at least retaining the general outline of Caesar’s campaigns, "All Gaul is divided in three parts," Hadrian’s wall, and all that. And yet – this is hard to explain – it all had been dead to me until I bent down, quite close, to examine where the ancient Celt’s skull had been pierced, leaving a rather neat hole. Very workman-like, that hole. Very Roman. It seemed more vivid to me than the bloodiest cinema scenes of Russell Crowe in full gladiator regalia, whacking lustily away at his opponents. I found it strangely moving.

But why?

I’ve always felt it best not to examine these emotional responses too closely, but, rather, to give way to them wholeheartedly. Thus, after spending another hour or so at the museum perusing the artifacts found at Maiden Castle, I consulted my excellent map of the surrounding countryside, located the site, and drove off to see it.

Some preliminary remarks are called for regarding Maiden Castle. First of all, it’s not a castle. There never has been a castle, confusingly enough, though it was, some two thousand years ago, a massive hill fort, the largest in Europe, in fact, covering forty-seven acres. Nor was there ever a "maiden," for the name derives from the Celtic term "mai dun," which simply means "great hill."

Approaching the site, which is just south of Dorchester, Maiden Castle appears to be a large, flat-topped hill. It is initially hard to grasp that it is a man-made fortification. No doubt the structure is more easily comprehended from above, and indeed aerial photos bear this out. Of course, such a huge structure cannot be partitioned off, and unlike such tourist meccas as Stonehenge, it seems to attract little in the way of tourist traffic. There are merely a few modest information boards set some distance from the hill near a wire fence and a sign requesting that visitors secure the gate after entering, as Maiden Castle is home to a flocks of fat sheep.

Few visitors were about on a weekday afternoon, only a sprinkling of retirees with their dogs on leads, taking an afternoon stroll. I entered the fort after trudging up a long slope, then navigating a somewhat confusing set of earthworks. My time at the museum had prepared me for this, as I’d learned that this design was a defensive ploy. Invaders who pierced the outer wall were trapped in the three concentric rings that form the inner defenses. The entrances to each successive ring are offset in such a manner that attackers would be confined to narrow sections, rendering them vulnerable to attack from defenders above on the ramparts. Even after several thousand years of erosion, the overall structure and cleverness of this plan is clear.

However, this massive structure proved inadequate in the face of the Roman Second Legion, with its catapults and disciplined ranks of well-armed soldiers. In 43 AD Vespasian, taking up where Julius Caesar had left off, subdued the warlike Celtic tribes of southern Britain. The conquest of Maiden Caste was, archaeologists believe, a very bloody affair, with the Roman invaders ultimately breaking through the eastern gate. It never fails to astonish me how archaeologists, undoubtedly after a great deal of painstaking work, can reconstruct such long-distant events.

No doubt Vespasian felt vindicated by crushing the troublesome Celtic tribes. The Romans held longstanding grudges, at least when it came to military defeats. In 390 BC, the Celtic leader Brennus and his marauding horde sacked imperial Rome, holding it ransom for a thousand pounds of gold. According to Livy, the weights the Celts used to measure the gold were heavier than normal. When the Roman commander dared protest, the insolent Brennus flung his sword onto the scale, declaring "Vae victis" – "Woe to the conquered!"

While the Celts of Britain were not those who invaded Rome, they were culpably of the same racial stock. Of course, only the Roman accounts of these events remain, for the victorious invariably write history. The Celts were defeated and we hear little more about them. Nor did the Romans have much use for the hill forts once the Celts had been vanquished. At Maiden Castle, there are the remains of a small Roman temple, but it could never have been a very imposing structure, judging from its size. Perhaps the Romans simply couldn’t resist building something on the most prominent structure in that section of Dorset. Mostly, however, they busied themselves with a thoroughly Roman project nearby, building the new city of Durnovaria (Dorchester).

As for me, I could only marvel at the sheer size of Maiden Castle, while contemplating the unhappy evidence it presented of the relative brevity of human endeavors. A broad footpath runs along the top of the inner perimeter, and along it I walked the fort’s circumference. T.E. Lawrence walked the same path in 1935 while viewing the ongoing archaeological excavations. "[He] stood shyly watching us at work on the eve of his sudden death," recalled Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

From Maiden Castle, the Dorset countryside stretched invitingly before me, the gentle shapes of freshly plowed fields caressing the hills and skirting patches of dark forest. I love the feeling of being up high, facing a stiff breeze that strengthens as it rises. Birds took to wing from a nearby field as I thought of the two Celtic warriors. The threat of war - all wars, past and present - seemed distant yet immediate as I stood on that ancient spot, beneath the sheltering sky and above an open plain.

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