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Aerial shot of the Cerne Abbas Giant.            Source: Dorset Council / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tests Underway to Solve Enigma of Naked Cerne Abbas Giant

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Archaeologists in the United Kingdom have begun tests to determine the age of a giant figure cut into the chalk of a hill. This figure known as the Cerne Abbas Giant has mystified experts and local people for centuries. The giant is notorious because it is depicted naked. It is hoped that the latest research will establish not only the giant’s age but its enigmatic origins.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 150-foot (55-meter) naked chalk figure holding a giant club. It was cut into the side of a hill, and it overlooks the pretty village of Cerne Abbas, which is in Dorset, England. This figure and the surrounding land were given to the National Trust, a heritage charity, by a local landowner in the 1920s. Last year, the giant figure was painstakingly restored by volunteers who hammered 17 tons of chalk into the outline.  The Daily Mail reports that “the origins and purpose of Britain's largest chalk hill figure remain shrouded in mystery.”

Renovation of the Cerne Abbas Giant. (Nigel Mykura / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Renovation of the Cerne Abbas Giant. (Nigel Mykura / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant

There are many theories about the origin of the naked giant, which is also shown with a large phallus. The Telegraph states that “local folklore has long held it to be a fertility aid.” There are claims that the giant is an ancient religious symbol or possibly a representation of a Celtic deity. Others claim that the giant depicts the classical hero, Hercules.

Some believe that the giant dates from only 350 years ago, as it was first recorded in the 1690s. They believe that it is a lampoon on the parliamentarian leader and puritan Oliver Cromwell who became the virtual dictator of Britain. According to The Telegraph , the giant is a caricature of Cromwell “with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his puritanism.”

A portrait of Oliver Cromwell. It has been suggested that the person who ordered the Cerne Abbas Giant to be cut, did so in order to make a mockery of his political adversary Cromwell. (Samuel Cooper / Public domain)

A portrait of Oliver Cromwell. It has been suggested that the person who ordered the Cerne Abbas Giant to be cut, did so in order to make a mockery of his political adversary Cromwell. (Samuel Cooper / Public domain )

Finding the Age of the Chalk Figure

The National Trust, in collaboration with the University of Gloucestershire, is now trying to date the figure, in a bid to solve the mystery of the giant. Experts are using a dating technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). The BBC reports Martin Papworth, a National Trust archaeologist as stating that “the OSL technique was used to determine when ancient grains in soil were last exposed to the sunlight.” A group of archaeologists have dug trenches to extract samples of soils from the giant’s feet and elbows.

Professor Phillip Toms will attempt to date the soil samples at the University of Gloucestershire in the coming days and weeks.  This technique has successfully dated another famous chalk figure. The Daily Mail quotes Mr. Papworth as saying that the method was “used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s.” The OSL technique showed that the horse figure was nearly 3 millennia old, which was much older than expected.

The Uffington White Horse. (David Price / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Uffington White Horse. (David Price / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Study of Microscopic Snails

The study will not result in an exact date but provide a range of dates in which the figure was probably made. This will help to solve the mystery of the giant but also allows researchers to understand its history. Just as importantly it will help them to discover ways to preserve the chalk figure, which needs regular restoration work.

Another study is also investigating the giant figure. An environmental archaeologist has taken samples of earth, which contain microscopic snails. They can help experts to understand the environment when the Cere Abbas Giant was first made. Allen is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that the snails’ “preserved shells can help us establish what a landscape was like at a certain time, and to track changes in land use over time.” This can aid us in understanding if the figure was cut into a hill that had been intensively grazed or if people had to hack away shrubs and bush, to prepare the ground for the chalk figure.

Aura of Mystery

The local community is very interested in the research, as the chalk figure is a source of great pride.  The Metro quotes Gordon Bishop, chairperson of the local historical society, as saying that there are some “who would prefer the giant's age and origins to remain a mystery.” But most people want to know if the giant is just a few centuries or a few millennia old. Whatever the results of the dating, there is no doubt that the Cerne Abbas Giant is unique and will always have an aura of mystery.

Top image: Aerial shot of the Cerne Abbas Giant.            Source: Dorset Council / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Ed Whelan

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