National Trust tests Cerne Abbas Giant in first attempt to scientifically establish enigmatic chalk figure’s true age

Press release
The Cerne Abbas Giant seen from above
Published : 19 Mar 2020

For generations, the 55m chalk figure of a naked, club-brandishing giant has looked over the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. This spring, for the first time, the National Trust is undertaking tests to try to determine the age of the enigmatic Cerne Abbas Giant.

The origins and purpose of Britain’s largest and perhaps best-known chalk hill figure are shrouded in mystery. Theories range from ancient spirituality symbol and likeness of Greco-Roman hero Hercules to a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his Puritanism. Local folklore has long held it to be a fertility aid; the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.

Now, a century after it was gifted the giant by the Pitt-Rivers family in 1920, the National Trust, in collaboration with the University of Gloucestershire, is attempting to establish when the figure was first hewn into the chalk hillside.

Earlier this month, Trust archaeologists excavated small trenches to enable samples of soil to be extracted from points on the giant’s elbows and feet. Over the coming weeks Prof. Phillip Toms, Academic Subject Leader in Environmental Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire, will attempt to date the samples using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL).

National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said: “The OSL technique is commonly used to determine when mineral grains in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. It was used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s, which was found to be nearly 3,000 years old – even more ancient than we had expected.

“We’re expecting the results of the tests in July. It is likely that the tests will give us a date range, rather than a specific age, but we hope they will help us better understand, and care for, this famous landmark.”

Chair of the Cerne Historical Society, Gordon Bishop, said Cerne Abbas villagers were eagerly awaiting the results.

“Although there are some who would prefer the Giant's age and origins to remain a mystery, I think the majority would like to know at least whether he is ancient or no more than a few hundred years old. Whichever may be the case, he is unique.”

In separate analysis, Environmental Archaeologist Mike Allen will analyse soil samples to understand more about the site’s past environment, using the microscopic shells of land snails to give clues about the landscape in which the giant was built.

Mike said: “There are 118 species of snails in Britain and many of them are habitat specific, so their preserved shells can help us establish what a landscape was like at a certain time, and to track changes in land use over time.

“They should help us to discover whether the giant was created on a grazed chalk hillside, or whether people purposely cleared scrub to prepare the land for the figure.”

During excavations, Trust teams also took drone footage in order to create a laser image of the giant which, once processed and uploaded to the conservation charity’s website, will allow people to take a ‘virtual tour’ of the landmark. Visitors can see the giant from nearby viewpoints but to prevent erosion and conserve the site it is not publicly accessible.  

Last year the giant was refreshed for the first time in 11 years, with a team of volunteers hammering in 17 tonnes of new chalk by hand to counteract weathering and keep the giant visible for miles around. 

More information is available on www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cerne-giant