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History of the Cerne Giant

Archaeologists taking samples from the giant
Image dating the giant at Cerne Abbas, Dorset | © Ben Thomas

The Cerne Abbas Giant is Britain’s largest, and possibly most recognisable, chalk hill figure. Standing at 180ft (55 metres) the Giant is an imposing figure in the surrounding landscape. Being in the National Trust’s care since 1920 has allowed lots of research to be carried out but, still, the ultimate age of the Giant has alluded archaeologists.

Generations have speculated about the age and meaning of the club-brandishing giant hewn into a Dorset hillside. Was he a depiction of the legendary demi-god Hercules, an ancient fertility symbol, or even the soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell? Another theory holds that the figure was carved around the body of a giant who was slain by local people after he terrorised the countryside.

Beginning in 2019 the National Trust, in partnership with the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest, used state-of-the art sediment analysis to discover some more of the Giants secrets.

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Archaeologists reveal likely age of enigmatic Cerne Abbas Giant

Taking 12 months and using state-of-the art sediment analysis, the National Trust can for the first time reveal the likely age of the Cerne Giant, Britain’s largest and perhaps best-known chalk hill figure.

Exciting results surprise archaeologists and historians

Hill figures pop-up in a few places around the country, and archaeologists have often tried to collate them all into the same period. It is thanks to the continued care provided to the monument by the National Trust that has enabled a detailed scientific analysis, revealing for the first time the likely age of the Cerne Giant.

Using state-of-the art sediment analysis jointly funded by the National Trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest, National Trust archaeologists have concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period.

Independent geoarchaeologist Mike Allen, whose research is helping the Trust understand more about the landscape in which the giant was created, said the result was surprising.

This is not what was expected. Many archaeologists and historians thought he was prehistoric or post-medieval, but not medieval. Everyone was wrong, and that makes these results even more exciting.

A quote by Mike Allen Independent geoarchaeologist

Britain’s largest chalk figure probably first created in late Saxon period

Phillip Toms, Professor in Physical Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, studied the samples using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which shows when individual grains of sand in the sediment were last exposed to sunlight. Material taken from the deepest layer (1m) yielded a date range of 700-1100AD which suggests the giant was first made by late Saxons.

National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said: “The archaeology on the hillside was surprisingly deep – people have been re-chalking the giant over a long period of time. The deepest sample from his elbows and feet tells us he could not have been made before 700AD, ruling out theories that he is of prehistoric or Roman origin.

‘This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history. Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in 987AD and some sources think the abbey was set up to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith’. The early part of our date range does invite the question, was the giant originally a depiction of that god?’

Archaeologists bag up soil samples taken from the Cerne Giant
Archaeologists bag up soil samples taken from the Cerne Giant | © Ben Thomas

Forgotten for generations?

Other soil samples – taken with permission from Historic England and the Secretary of State – gave later dates for the giant. The latest being up to 1560, presenting Martin and his team with a conundrum, because the earliest documented record of the giant is a church warden’s account of repairing him in 1694.

‘The science suggests he could be medieval, but intriguingly, surviving documents from Cerne Abbey don’t mention the giant. In the 16th century it’s as if the giant’s not there, and John Norden’s survey of 1617 makes no mention of him. And why would a rich and famous abbey – just a few yards away – commission, or sanction, a naked man carved in chalk on the hillside?’

Martin’s working theory is that the giant may have been a medieval creation but then – for reasons we may never know – was neglected for several hundred years, before being rediscovered.

‘I wonder whether he was created very early on, perhaps in the late Saxon period, but then became grassed over and was forgotten. But at some stage, in low sunlight, people saw that figure on the hill and decided to re-cut him again. That would explain why he doesn’t appear in the abbey records or in Tudor surveys.’

National Trust's Senior Archaeologist making site sketches during soil sampling
National Trust's Senior Archaeologist making site sketches during soil sampling | © Ben Thomas

Confirmed by snails

Independent geoarchaeologist Mike Allen is helping the Trust understand more about the landscape in which the giant was created. Mike’s research found that microscopic snails in the sediment samples included species that were introduced into Britain in the medieval period. The archaeological fieldwork and scientific study, however, found no archaeological evidence that the giant was deliberately covered over.

Gordon Bishop, Chair of the Cerne Historical Society, said: ‘These results are intriguing as well as surprising. What I am personally pleased about is that the results appear to have put an end to the theory that he was created in the 17th century as an insult to Oliver Cromwell. I thought that rather demeaned the giant. In fact it seems highly likely that he had a religious significance, albeit a pagan one. There’s obviously a lot of research for us to do over the next few years.’

Retaining an air of mystery

Although we are closer to a date for his original construction there are many mysteries still held by the giant. Future research could tell us even more about how the giant has changed over time and whether theories about his ‘lost’ years are correct.

When we began the work, some people wanted the giant’s age to remain a mystery – but archaeologists want to use science to seek answers. We have nudged our understanding a little closer to the truth but, he still retains many of his secrets. He still does have an air of mystery, so I think everyone’s happy.

A quote by Martin PapworthNational Trust Senior Archaeologist
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