THERE are many mysteries to be found in earthy, muddy mounds, but very few of them are easily explained.

In Memories 577, we told of the Scots Dyke, which Victorian historians believed was a deep defensive trench dug many hundred of years ago, running from North Yorkshire to the Scottish border. They came up with many theories, about how it was to keep the Romans out, or perhaps to keep the Vikings out, or just to keep the native tribes safe.

The trench seems to have something to do with Maiden Castle, which may be an Iron Age hillfort, built before 500BC.

The Northern Echo: The Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle in Swaledale is the light patch of ground in the centre of this picture. It is surrounded by deep trenches

The Maiden Castle hill fort in the centre, surrounded by trenches. Looking north towards the Reeth side of Swaledale

It is halfway up the southern side of Swaledale, with Harkerside rising up behind it. The “castle” is roughly circular, with ditches 10ft deep still defending its inner core, and a large tumble of stones heading east, as if there was once a tall wall guarding its main entrance. From its ledge on the side of the dale, it offers amazing views of the beautiful green northern slopes opposite, with Low Row off to the left, Healaugh directly in front and Reeth to the right.

But this can’t have been a defensive structure – while it gives great views over the northside villages, it is extremely vulnerable to an enemy flooding over the top from Harkerside to the south.

The Northern Echo: A deep trench that still guards the Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle on Harkerside, the south side of Swaledale opposite Reeth

A trench surrounding Maiden Castle

“The purpose of the site is as uncertain as its age,” says Chris Park in his 2014 book, The Story of a Dale.

“‘Maiden Castle’ has become a rather generic name for any Iron Age hill settlement,” says Dave Middlemas in Darlington. He points to Maiden Castle in Dorset, which is the largest Iron Age settlement in Europe, the size of 50 football pitches, and to other Maiden Castles at Durham City and Pooley Bridge in Cumbria.

“The name supposedly derives from ‘Mai Dun’ - meaning ‘great hill’,” he says.

The Swaledale fort is said to be protected by a couple of deep ditches on its eastern flank near Grinton. These dykes run north/south to the River Swale and may be marking a boundary between people who live in the west – perhaps Norsemen – and those Saxons in the east.

But those east/west conflicts would have taken place 1,000 years after the Iron Age came to an end.

“The place names of the Dales lend some weight to this theory,” says Dave. “Grinton, Fremington and Ellerton lie just east of the earthworks while all those villages to the west have an obvious Scandinavian origin to their names.” Place names ending in “ton” are usually Old English, but names like Healaugh and Muker to the west of the earthworks are of Norse origin.

Some people say that the dykes near Maiden Castle were once joined to other ditches so that they formed the Scots Dyke, a trench which stretched all the way from North Yorkshire to the Scottish border.

The eastern boundary of Richmond still follows the Scots Dyke. Then the dyke goes through Gilling West and up to Melsonby before dropping down to the great earthwork at Stanwick. It crosses the Tees at Gainford and then heads up Weardale before going through Kielder Forest. It really would have been a stupendous amount of digging.

The Northern Echo: Two boys in November 1960 exploring the recently excavated Scots Dyke near the Brigantes\' Stanwick camp

Two boys in November 1960 exploring the remains of the Brigantes' fort at Stanwick

But the earthworks at Stanwick don’t fit in with either Maiden Castle, at 500BC, or our 8th Century Norsemen.

In fact, Stanwick’s heyday was around the time the Romans arrived in 43AD, when it was the capital of the Brigantes, who were a collection of tribes which occupied most of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Durham.

Their queen was Cartimandua, and her policy was to live peacefully alongside the Romans rather than cause them trouble – unlike her fellow female ruler, Boadicea, in the south.

In 51AD, Caratacus, a Welsh leader, lost his battle with the Romans and fled to Cartimandua, either expecting her protection or to beg her to intercede on his behalf.

She, though, handed him over in chains to the Romans, who took him back to Rome and paraded him before the emperor. However, rather than kill him, they allowed him to live as a free man – so perhaps Cartimandua’s intervention had saved his life.

The Northern Echo: Stanwick church, surrounded by an unusual circular graveyard, is at the centre of Stanwick camp - it seems likely that this spot had religious signficance when Queen Cartimandua was there in the 1st Century

Stanwick church is in the middle of an unusual circular churchyard which is in the centre of Stanwick camp. It would seem to have been a place of worship since Cartimandua's day

This consorting with the Roman invaders was not popular with all the Brigantes, and Cartimandua’s husband, Venetius, deserted her to take up the lead of those with anti-Roman sympathies.

Cartimandua instead took up with Vellocatus, who was described as Venetius’ armour-bearer or charioteer. Vellocatus was therefore an important part of Venetius’ retinue, and for Cartimandua to publicly take him as her lover must have been an embarrassing rebuke for Venetius.

Venetius spent the next 20 years fighting a civil war against Cartimandua and her Roman backers, eventually defeating her in 69AD, when the Romans took her to safety.

In our article three weeks ago, we showed pictures of a defensive trench at Stanwick – perhaps part of the Scots Dyke – being excavated by archaeologists.

The Northern Echo: A brave explorer stands at the bottom of the Scots Dyke at Forcett, near Stanwick, in 1960

“As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler undertook a big excavation at Stanwick, and he found an iron sword, still in its wood and bronze scabbard, and a human skull, severed at the neck,” says Richard Boothroyd of Baldersdale. “His number two was George Burdon, my great uncle, and he undertook the reconstruction of a small section of the wall and ditch which is still evident today. I think your picture shows George in the ditch (above).”

Dave Middlemas explains: “Wheeler was a huge celebrity and led many digs. He regularly appeared on radio and TV and it is claimed with some justification that he brought history and archaeology to the masses – a bit like Time Team!”

Sir Mortimer’s theory was that once Venetius had defeated Cartimandua in 69AD, he built an enormous camp at Stanwick with a six mile perimeter, defended by the deepest ditch imaginable, to see off the inevitable attack by the Romans.

But modern historians disagree. “They claim that his assessment of the earthworks was over-enthusiastic and this was perhaps characterised by his exaggerated and rather dramatic ‘reconstruction’ of the feature in your photograph, which is known almost mockingly as ‘Wheelers Wall’,” says Dave.

The Northern Echo: Archaelogists working near Stanwick church in 1989 when they came to the conclusion that the fort was Cartimandua's stronghold. Behind them is a late 18th Century deerhouse which covers the entrance to an icehouse that belonged to the now lost

Archaelogists working near Stanwick church in 1989 when they came to the conclusion that the fort was Cartimandua's stronghold. Behind them is a late 18th Century deerhouse which covers the entrance to an icehouse that belonged to the now lost Stanwick Hall

Stanwick, like Swaledale’s Maiden Castle, is not built to make best use of natural defensive features, and to dig ditches as deep as the one George is standing in would have required a huge workforce.

The best guess now is that Stanwick is Cartimandua’s home, built enormously to show off her strength at the height of her powers, and with a more modest ditch around it than the one Sir Mortimer “discovered”.

But it is all conjecture. The muddy mounds don't like to relinquish their secrets, and when they do, it is in a mysterious way.

York historian Paul Chrystal has just published A History of Britain in 100 Objects, which is a very dippable compendium of curious items, from powdered wigs to tennis rackets to Jackie magazine, that tell the story of the country.

The Northern Echo: A History of Britain in 100 Objects by Paul Chrystal (DestinWorld Publishing, £14.99)

Among his earliest items is the skeleton of a Roman-era teenage girl found beneath York railway station in 1875. The girl still has her auburn hair coiled fashionably into a bun, and held in place by two jet pins, showing the fashions of the Roman age.

The Northern Echo: The Stanwick Hoard Horse Mask, which features in Paul Chrystal\'s new book and is now in the British Museum having been discovered at Melsonby in 1845

Another is the Stanwick Horse Mask (above) that was found in 1845 by accident in Melsonby among a hoard of 140 metal items. It is only about 10cms long and is now in the British Museum.

No one knows what it is – it could be a decoration to be attached to a vessel, like a bucket – or why it should be buried in Melsonby – perhaps it was consigned as part of a religious ceremony. Made of brass, it seems to come from a time when Cartimandua was in her pomp – but like all the muddy mounds from Maiden Castle in Swaledale to Stanwick camp and the various trenches that may, or may not, form a dyke all the way to Scotland, it is reluctant to give up its story.

The Northern Echo: A sign points to the earthworks that Sir Mortimer Wheeler dug out in 1951 on the Forcett side of Stanwick

A sign points to the earthworks that Sir Mortimer Wheeler dug out in 1951 on the Forcett side of Stanwick