The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Maiden Castle (Grinton)

Ancient Village / Settlement / Misc. Earthwork


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.
Posted by BrigantesNation
3rd March 2003ce

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