Left: the Maiden Bower Iron Age fort in better times during the 1960s. Image courtesy of Bedfordshire County Council.
Archaeologists in Bedfordshire are angry after discovering serious damage to the remains of an Iron Age fort near Dunstable just before Christmas, apparently caused by a mechanical digger.
Considered to be one of the most significant Iron Age monuments in the county, the Maiden Bower site was left scarred in what appears to be an act of vandalism.
It is believed a mechanical digger found at the scene was used to cause severe damage to surrounding earthworks and create a number of holes inside the fort.
Local police have been informed of the damage, which is believed to have been caused by off-road motorcyclists, who, according to local sources, have been using the site for some time.
The incident comes in the wake of growing concern over the safety of the UK's many archaeological sites. Only last October a hill fort at Yeavering Bell in Northumberland was left littered with holes after being ransacked overnight, apparently by metal detector-equipped illicit collectors of relics.
"I think it is scandalous that somebody should attack something like this," said Barry Horne, Secretary of the local Manshead Archaeological Society.
"It would appear on the face of it that this was done to provide some sort of ramp. The rampart itself has been damaged in two places by this digger, there were also some holes dug in the middle, about six inches deep and various branches sawn off. I'm not sure what we can do to protect it."
Right: hill forts were the most common means of defence for Britain's Iron Age communities.
The Iron Age fort at Maiden Bower measures approximately 700 feet across and contains some Neolithic, or Stone age, features. As a registered national monument, anyone causing damage to it could face legal proceedings and a substantial fine if found guilty.
Describing the incident as grim, John Etté, English Heritage's local Inspector of Ancient Monuments, confirmed that damage to the site was in breach of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. He went on to explain what would happen next.
"Really we need to confirm this, and the first step is for me to do a damage report," said Mr Etté.
"If we can prove who has done it we will take this to prosecution, I have no hesitation about that. We are going to take this very seriously. These things make you feel really quite sick."
An English Heritage inspection of the site was due to take place on January 8 and only once this is complete will the full extent of the damage be revealed.
Although there are no plans for future excavations, the site has been investigated on a number of occasions, yielding evidence of a significant Iron Age plateau fort built on top of an earlier Neolithic causewayed camp.