Press Centre

Secrets From The Sky

  • Episode: 

    4 of 6

  • Title: 

    Maiden Castle
  • Transmission (TX): 

    Fri 07 Nov 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    8.00pm - 8.30pm
  • Week: 

    Week 45 2014 : Sat 01 Nov - Fri 07 Nov
  • Channel: 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing into the public domain until Tuesday 28th October.
“Looking down from above gives a completely different perspective on these hauntingly beautiful sites. And it’s these breath-taking pictures which will reveal Britain’s Secrets From the Sky.” Bettany Hughes
Britain’s most historic landmarks and glorious landscapes are explored from a bird’s eye view in Secrets From The Sky. 
Using an octocopter, a remote controlled helicopter carrying a camera, historian Bettany Hughes and aerial archaeologist Ben Robinson look down on sites of great historical interest to gain a fresh perspective and uncover the secrets of our ancestors. 
Britain’s landscape is dotted with historical monuments including Tintagel Castle, Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, Sutton Hoo, The Antonine Wall and Old Sarum.  This series investigates these monuments, showing Britain’s stunning landscapes through fantastic aerial views and revealing a new insight into our nation’s story. By looking down on these sites from above, the clues on the ground can be linked together to uncover the full story locked in the landscape. 
In episode four, we explore the mysteries of Maiden Castle, a giant fort carved out of a Dorset hill during the iron age, over 2000 years ago. There are 2000 hillforts in Britain alone and Maiden Castle is the largest in Europe. The traditional view is that this previously impenetrable fort fell to the Romans when they invaded and waged a bloody battle on the ancient Britons living within.  However, theories on the history of the fort and its eventual decline have changed over the last century with new analysis to suggest that there is another explanation for the Roman presence on the site.  
Bettany says: “This feels like some massive outdoor sculpture park.  And in fact these fabulously impressive curves, dips and banks are manmade, they’re the ghosts of ferocious defences built well over two thousand years old by the tribes who used to live here, long before the Romans invaded.”
Maiden Castle’s name is misleading, as the hillfort was a prehistoric iron age fortification built in earth and timber, rather than stone.  However, the vast banks carved into the landscape would have been made out of chalk and been bright white in the lush green landscape.  
Ben says: “It wouldn’t have been this gentle folding into the hillside that we see today.  No, this would have been stark white, right in your face. We’re here right on top of this hill.”
The fortress came into existence after a prehistoric version of our recent banking crisis. Society was organised around the exchange of bronze and when the bronze ran out, it caused the economy to melt down and local people to fear for their safety.  
In an unprecedented move, they left their scattered farms on the lowlands and banded together for a move to higher ground where they would create a hilltop stronghold.  Archaeologist Niall Sharples explains that 1500 people would have lived in the sophisticated, organized settlement.
Niall says: “You could say it’s a town. Certainly people don’t live in big settlements like this in previous years. So this is the first ‘town’ in Britain.  People are living together, densely packed together and that’s a really major decision.”
This windswept hill had become the greatest settlement in Britain, buzzing with life. Archaeologists have unearthed jewellery, combs and even the skeleton of a pet dog carefully buried.  At a local museum, Bettany holds a hand mirror found on the site, which shows the inhabitants had access to luxuries too.
Bettany says: “It’s just brilliant to be up close to this because it really says a lot about life up in those hillforts.  You get the sense from this that these were sophisticated, well-functioning little communities. And lovely bits of frippery like this tells me that these were men and women who weren’t just full of fear but full of hope.”
Tradition has it that the invading Roman Army seized Maiden Castle in a bloody battle, a feat which seems almost impossible to imagine as you walk around it’s awe-inspiring defences.  Ben launches the octocopter for reconnaissance shots of the area, which the Romans never had.
Ben says: “We’re just coming up over the top of the ditches now and they are massive.  Not just one or two ditches that you can see from down here but layer upon layer of ditches and banks.  We’re talking 10 or 20 metres deep.  Something like 60 feet.”
He then finds concrete evidence of Roman occupation: “It looks impregnable but look at this! This shape right here – this stone foundation.  This is the remains of a classic Roman Temple. And it’s a clear sign that the Romans took control of this place at some stage.”
In the 1930’s Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a broadcaster, soldier and pioneering archaeologist headed a dig on the site, to discover more about the history of the fortress.  His excavations led him to a dramatic theory.
Bettany says: “Mortimer Wheeler thought Maiden Castle was the site of the last stand of the Britons. The scene of a brutal massacre that extinguished an ancient way of living and heralded the advent of the smart, shiny, all-powerful Romans. And he produced some pretty convincing and gruesome evidence to back up his thesis.”
Wheeler excavated the skeletons of over 50 ancient Britons near the eastern entrance and one showed strong evidence of having perished at the hands of the romans.  
On examining two skeletons found during Wheeler’s excavations, Bettany says: “They’ve both suffered horrific head wounds.  Their skulls have been smashed in by some sort of a blunt instrument.  But real clincher is a ballista bolt lodged into the spine of that man.  Ballistas were horrible inventions.  They were made by the Romans and they were mechanized crossbows. A ballista bolt would have ripped in to your body splitting open bones and vital organs.  It was a truly terrible way to die. When he discovered these. Mortimer Wheeler was convinced he had discovered a great battlefield cemetery.  The result of a mammoth conflict between the Romans and ancient Britons.”
Ben studies footage from the octocopter with Mark Bowden from English Heritage and discovers that the formidable ditches and banks would have would have had a serious psychological impact on any attackers trying to negotiate the labyrinth.   
In addition to the complex maze, attackers would face a barrage of prehistoric ammunition. 
Wheeler’s theory then loses further ground when the bodies discovered at the Eastern entrance are examined.  Of the 50 skeletons uncovered, only 14 suffered a violent death and only one of these was killed by a Roman weapon.  
In the centuries since Maiden Castle was built, the area had become safer and begun to prosper.  The locals were less fearful of an attack and decided to settle back in the fertile lowlands, rather than commute up to the windswept hilltop every day.  
By the time the Romans arrived, Maiden Castle was a shadow of its former self, with just 200-300 residents left. The Romans seduced the locals by building luxurious villas to persuade them to accept them as rulers and nearby Dorchester became Rome’s regional capital, as Maiden Castle continued to decline.  
The great hillfort could not be forgotten, so the Romans put their stamp on it, building the temple whose remains Ben saw from the sky.  
However, before the Romans arrived, this super-fortress was the most extraordinary place in Britain.  In its prime, Maiden Castle was one of the greatest armed fortresses in Europe. It is difficult to see how the Romans could have negotiated both the confusing landscape and an onslaught of ammunition from the angry residents.