The Pre-Roman Iron Age

The Pre-Roman Iron Age

Dorset was early occupied by the iron—using Celts who crossed the Channel about 450 BC. The earthwork crowning Bindon Hill was a ‘beach—head’ of these invaders, covering Lulworth Cove Where their boats could land, while others penetrated by the rivers from Poole Harbour and up the Stour. These people had much the same agriculture as their Deverel-Rimbury predecessors, and they enlarged the existing farms on the upland chalk. They seem to have lived in large single farmsteads rather than villages, and they enslaved or absorbed the Late Bronze Age Celts Whose weapons could not compete with iron.

About 250 BC Southern England was threatened by another invasion of warlike people from Gaul. To meet this, hill—forts were built all over the chalk country and the habitable heathlands, all in a similar style and probably planned by powerful tribal authorities. Dorset has many, and some, like Maiden Castle, were originally made at this time though rebuilt and altered later. They crowned hilltops with a single rampart, built with the chalk taken from the ditch in front and supported by timber. In hand-to-hand warfare with sword and spear they were very effective, and the invaders failed to gain any foothold in the South except in West Sussex. Instead, they by—passed the forts and invaded the East Coast.

Plan of Maiden Castle

Some two hundred years later the area fell under the influence of a Gaulish people called Veneti, who crossed the Channel after Caesar had defeated them, and they introduced the sling which could kill at a hundred yards. Old forts were remodelled, and new ones built, with two or more lines of rampart designed to keep attackers at a distance at which they could be hit by the defenders firing downhill while their own slings, firing upward, could do no damage. Maiden Castle, Eggardon, Badbury, and Hod Hill are outstanding examples, and forts which had previously been only refuges now became something like towns with permanent inhabitants. At this period (and throughout the later Roman Occupation) Dorset and south-east Somerset were inhabited by a tribe called Durotriges, and Maiden Castle became their capital.

Another result of Caesar’s activities in Gaul was an invasion of the Hampshire Basin by a warlike, highly organised, people called Belgae, whose kinsmen were already established around the Lower Thames. These were the first to have a Wheeled ox-drawn plough for cultivating heavy clay soils, and also used war-chariots. Some twenty years before the Romans arrived in 43 AD, they invaded the county, and captured Maiden Castle, but they did not displace the Durotriges.

Pre-Roman Iron Age

The pre-Roman Iron Age lasted some five hundred years in Dorset, and though it had its periods of violence it left plenty of time for peaceful farming. Settlements were still mainly on the chalk and the better heathland, and their fields can still sometimes be traced in the Downland turf. Sites shown on the map are only a few of those which must have existed to support a people numerous enough to raise the massive hill-forts. There was also some overseas trade, indicated by an anchor and chain from the fort at Bulbury (now in Dorchester Museum) and coins from the Mediterranean found in the Stour Valley and from Gaul at Weymouth. The Durotriges eventually struck coins of their own. But iron was much more widespread and easy to come by than bronze, and trade was less necessary than in Bronze Age times. Kimmeridge Shale was worked up into ornaments, and sold by pedlars far outside Dorset. By land the best routes were the ‘Ridgeways’ along the hills, or over the better—drained heath soils where several forts indicate population at this period.