Dorset’s Archaeology in 250 Words #9: Wheeler’s ‘War Cemetery’ at Maiden Castle

In what has become one of the most famous excavations in British Archaeology, Sir Mortimer Wheeler spent four summers between 1934 and 1937 excavating at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, Dorset.

Wheeler uncovered a late Iron Age cemetery of more than 52 burials with some male skeletons exhibiting horrific injuries. Wheeler believed this was a ‘war cemetery’ and clear evidence evidence for a Roman attack on the hillfort as part of Vespasian’s campaign through this part of southern England.

Wheeler was convinced the skeletons were direct evidence of this campaign and used evocative words to describe one skeleton in his ‘war cemetery’ near the inner bank of the eastern entrance:

one skull showed the square piercing of a quadrangular Roman ballista-bolt, whilst another skeleton – most vivid relic of all – had an iron arrow-head embedded deeply in a vertebra. This last unhappy warrior, as he lay grievously wounded, had been finished off by a cut to the head.

Over time, ideas about the cemetery have changed. Only a proportion of the individuals had actually died of violent injuries and the selection of grave goods (personal jewellery; pottery; joints of meat) suggests careful burial, in some cases of high-status individuals, in a cemetery over a period of time rather than a quickly dug mass grave.

However, it is certain, from further study of the human remains that the people living at Maiden Castle during the late Iron Age suffered a violent life. 75% of those buried around the site, adults and young of both sexes, had suffered from violence – a proportion not seen in any other Iron Age community in Dorset.

Despite a large amount of study at Maiden Castle it remains uncertain how many of these people perished fighting the Romans, rather than one another.






*Note: The word count for this series of posts has been increased to 250 words- there’s too much to cover*


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