Maiden Castle Revisited.
It's almost 3 years since I was last at Maiden Castle. The last time I visited the site I was totally confused by the whole thing. So today the sun was shining and I thought I would have a run up Swaledale and give the place another coat of looking at hoping that during the intervening 3 years I may have become a little more knowledgeable and could look at the monument with 'new eyes'. I was wrong it's still a crazy place and I still haven't a clue what it's all about.
The top of my field notes says 'invisible'. Even though I knew where the site was, I scrambled up the unenclosed hillside almost missing it.
Huge amounts of time and effort were invested in creating this monument, thousands of man hours, think of Mayburgh then double it, I paced the inner rampart and it came to 400 paces exactly. Yet if you didn't know it was there you would never seen it either from above or below, WHY?
The only possible sign to indicate to anyone that there was something here is the large, eroded mound at the eastern end of the stone avenue. The mound is visible from the high ground above Grinton and may have been a marker for the monument.
There is another mound to the west of the monument which has a modern cairn on top of it, but the mound itself may be natural.
I've not too much to add to my original observations of the site.
There appears to be 2 large squarely set blocks at the junction between the avenue and the monument, these could possibly be seen as gateposts. I also found evidence of dry stone wall beneath the rubble of both the avenue and the ramparts. One of the circular structures in the southern rampart has a definite hut circle groove about it with evidence of at least 3 courses of stone walling.
Maiden Castle is a strange site. I get the feeling that if it was located in a more accessible part of the country then it would have been interpreted, reinterpreted, excavated, argued over and classed as a very important monument. I don't know whether the fact that it remains a little known, poorly understood monument is a good thing or a bad thing. What I would suggest is, if you're in the area pay it a visit. I guarantee it will impress you and confuse you in equal parts.
Th hut circle at SE024979 is about average in size, measuring 8m north south and 9m east west. it's walls were made of large dry stone block on the inside and out with a rubble fill. The only entrance was to the south. Outside the circle, toughly to the south east are a number of large outlying stones which seem to respect the arc of the hut circle and may therefore be contemporary.
I approached Maiden Castle from Harkerside Moor, the weather was filthy with fog and rain. I was also hassled by screeching peewits who are currently in the middle of their breeding season, the only other sound to be heard was an intermittant cuckoo.
The site is on the north facing slope of Swaledale and quite difficult to spot.
So what is it? I don't know but it isn't half impressive and must have took some building.
Firstly you've got an tumbled down dry stone avenue 4m wide and 110m long. The avenue runs from the east and appears to narrow to about 3m at the entrance to the enclosure. At the beginning of the avenue is a large mound, which may be a spoil heap but I don't think it is especially being so close to the entrance. There is a structure built into the avenue but I think this may be a recent grouse butt.
The enclosure it self is a massive wonky pear shape 140m (E-W) X 120m (N-S). It is surrounded by a rubble wall and deep ditch 4m deep with steep sides and 10m wide. The floor is fairly flat with 1 possibly two stone structures built into the southern side of the entrance.
The site is overlooked by the hillside on the southern edge so could not be a defensive structure, the enemy could fire down into the enclosure.
The site does not dominate the hillside but fits neatly into it and cannot be seen from the road which is only 200m away.
The structure seems too elaborate and too large to be an animal enclosure, why bother building a huge ditch and wall when a gorse hedge would suffice. There are a lot of man hours in this structure.
To get a good idea of the site, check out the aerial photo on multimap at 1:10000.
It has the feel of Mayburgh Henge but hmmm.. the wall is inside the ditch....... I just don't know
If you want to visit, the easiest way is to take the Grinton, Crackpot (really!) road and walk the 200m up the hillside, it's well worth it.
I learn from Mr. Robinson, of Hill House, Reeth, Yorkshire, that in his neighbourhood as in many others is a place called Maiden's Castle, in which tradition avers a chest of gold is buried. "Many attempts," he says, "have been made to gain possession of the treasure, and one party of adventurers actually came up to the chest and laid hold of it, when a hen appeared, flapped her wings, and put out the light. This occurred three times, and the men were obliged to desist. The next day was Sunday, still they returned to the place. A violent storm of thunder and rain came on, however, and the 'drift,' in miners' phrase, 'ran'. My informant, an old man of the place, knew this, he said, for a fact."
From 'Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders' by William Henderson (1879).
"Stone circles apart, Swaledale lacks obvious ceremonial monuments unless some elements are incorporated in the undated complex of maiden Castle, Grinton. The pear shaped earthwork partly cut into the slope cannot be defensive, the parallel stone walls leading up to its entrance begins immediately south of a large round barrow. The relationship is suggestive of some of the arrangements of some long barrows, long enclosures and posted avenues in eastern Yorkshire. The structures at Maiden Castle, including a roundhouse, suggest that this is not a single phase monument".
The Archaeology of Yorkshire
The Neolithic & Bronze Ages
T.G. Manby, A. King & B.E. Vyner
YAS Occasional Paper No.3
Now that I've had a chance to look around the Maiden Castle area, I can say the whole area is truly fascinating, and represents on of the largest Iron Age settlement areas in Britain.
The area is very large, in order to understand it fully; at least three days are required.
The key to what Maiden Castle was, I feel lies to the south, here, a massive area is enclosed by a combination of Long Scar Dyke, the Northern escarpments to Harker Hill, and other features to the south and west of Harker Hill.
Like all places, the story of Maiden Castle will go back thousands of years, however, it seems it was the Iron Age that made it an area of significant wealth and population.
The area of Harker Hill is an extremely rich in lead, this metal; a key ingredient in bronze is also a valuable source of silver.
With the coming of metals, early Bronze Age man found that Harker Hill was a valuable source of lead and began to exploit it, naturally this enabled long distance trade, which not only enabled the people of Harker to quickly become wealthy, but also it allowed them access to a much broader spectrum of contacts and influences. Instead of the regular monthly or yearly visit from traders they knew little about, they had traders from as far as perhaps inland Europe to virtually living with them at times. These benefits made the enclave of Harker Hill, and probably many others in these rich ore-hills a new political power on the ancient landscape.
It is possible that at the beginning of the age of metals, emissaries came, prospectors from mainland Europe, looking to find new sources of metal to exploit, these 'planted' key skills in prospecting, extracting and processing ores such as lead in order reap the benefits of this new source of metal. If they existed, the skills that they spread at some stage, perhaps as early as 2500 BC, arrived at Harker Hill and changed their lives.
The new wealth from time to time brought with it danger of attack, the original inhabitants built the Hill fort of Maiden Castle, a pure guess would date this as late Bronze Age, but this has not been excavated and is unknown. That was when the community was still quite young and small of numbers.
Later, it would appear that the numbers of people inhabiting the area have swollen considerably, since they then proceeded on a plan to fortify the entire area of Harker Hill and beyond. To do this they built a great stone revetted and ditch fronted wall - Long Scar Dyke.
The large plateau hilltop of Harker hill begins about a kilometre south of Maiden Castle, where it's northern face looms large with a steep natural escarpment is almost sheer for a significant part of it's northern edge. On the eastern face of Harker Hill, the huge man-made defensive wall of Long Scar Dyke runs for about 2km southwards to prevent attack from the east. The dyke was built using the natural slope, enhanced with a 3-4m deep ditch and a rampart standing perhaps 25m from the bottom of the ditch. Long Scar Dyke was originally stone revetted, apparently with a dry stonewall, which has long since collapsed.
Long scar dyke is very impressive and has some mysteries. Firstly it has a possible complex entrance about 300m south of the modern track, which cuts through the dyke.
The second astonishing feature is the "long straight bit". In the central section of the dyke, towards the end of Harker Hill a dyke of fundamentally different architecture emerges. Whereas up until now the dyke, although massive has been pretty roughly cut. Suddenly it takes on a pristine air, firstly it is amazingly straight for about 400m down a slope, also it's profile is incredibly regular - and different, it's almost as if this section of the dyke served a dual purpose, one is obvious - defence, but the other - perhaps a hauling ramp? This stretch of the dyke runs down to a stream, which has had a massive amount of human intervention, most of it, presumably the later results of mining activity, but oddly, many of the ditches seem to work on a defensive arrangement in line with the dyke.
I have a feeling that this stream represents the original boundary for the Harker hill enclosure, and that the area of dyke further south from here is a later extension, since it is rougher and less monumental in proportion.
If I'm right the any remaining southern and western enclosure boundaries may have been removed by later mine workings. Either way, this stone-revetted dyke was enormous and expensive to build, it lays a claim to one of the richest lead mining areas in the country and its sheer size indicates wealth and a significant population.
Long Scar Dyke carries on for another few hundred metres or so beyond the stream. Unfortunately I was not able to follow due to heather burning.
Rich lead ores to exploit had a grave downside for the peoples of Harker Hill, the smelting process for lead gives off deadly fumes, and the lifespan of one who worked in the smelting area must have been considerably shortened.
To the east of Harker Hill is another dyke - Harker Mires Dyke, this defence seems to be built as an extension to the Long Scar Dyke enclosure, but was perhaps built by a different people or at a much later and less wealthy time, since this dyke does not appear to have been stone revetted and may have therefore been of a shorter term nature.
At the eastern foot of Harker Hill close to the modern track, a naturally boggy area may have been used to prevent access to a settlement area immediately to the north. At the point further east towards Grinton, where the bog begins to dry out, Harker Mires Dyke begins, this has a large earthen bank about 10-15m high fronted by a 5 m ditch, It runs eastwards, protecting from southerly attack for about 4-500m until what appears to be an original but still used entrance, then a further 30m to the steep 50-70m gully formed by the beck, which then runs into Grinton, forming a strongly defensive eastern boundary, possibly as far as Grinton where the river Swale would form a Northern boundary.
Close to Vicarage bridge, on the way to Grinton, and the area immediately to the north of Hawker Mires dyke, are two areas of possible IA settlement activity, in the case of the former, later activity seems to have re-used the existing living space.
There are five further dykes around Grinton - Grinton Dyke, Bleak House Dyke, Reeth Dyke, Fremington Dyke and Hags Gill Dyke, these (although I have yet to visit Reeth Dyke) I feel are all part of the same series, they are later, possibly much later, and serve to protect the entire Reeth Valley, which one presumes the earlier population moved and expanded into as the situation in the lowlands improved and there was no longer any need to build such massive defences. These are all earthen ramparts earthworks, in places, as impressive as Long Scar. But all with a more youthful feel.
I came to Grinton (amongst many other places) looking for a battle, one specific battle, that battle in the very late Iron Age when Venutius first scored a major triumph over Cartimandua (mid 50's AD?). My theory is, that Venutius realised that hill forts were no defence against the Romans, and learnt that dykes were more effective, since they served to put attacking forces into bottlenecks without cutting of the defenders retreat. Grinton is currently the strongest contender for the site of this battle. Recently, a set of Roman cavalry pieces found at Fremington Hagg have been suggested to date from prior to the Roman invasion of Brigantia. These may have been from the cohort who had a difficult time defending Cartimandua - the first of three battles recorded as requiring Roman intervention.
Anyway, that's my little story of the ancient people of Grinton, who knows if it's true, there still more to tell - the processional entrance to Maiden Castle, the possible siege-works and other earthworks at Grinton, the odd folly castle at Fremington, the trade route to northern Europe but that's for another day.
"...Maiden Castle at Grinton in Swaledale, is a curious place with a roughly circular bank and ditch approached from the east by a stone avenue. There are round barrows in the vacinity, and although the ditch lies outside the bank, it seems very probable that Maiden Castle is not a fort but some kind of sacred enclosure or meeting place"
A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales.
Pub. 1978 Abacus
"Among the Pennines and the North Yorkshire Moors, too are linear earthworks comparable to those in the Parisian territory. Certainly not all are Iron Age, but a strong case can be made for some. The usual suggestion is that these are ranch boundaries. At Maiden Castle, on the southern slope of Swaledale west of Grinton, a ditched enclosure of rather less than an acre with a stone wall has a stone- walled drove road leading to it from the east. This is comparable in its general nature to the 'banjo' enclosures of the south, and we are inclined to accept it's Iron Age date."
Brian Hartley and Leon Fitts.
Pub. Alan Sutton 1988