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

Tests Reveal True Age of Naked Cerne Abbas Giant

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After a year of work, archaeologists in the United Kingdom have completed their scientific 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. The latest research establishes not only the giant’s age but also provides clues to its enigmatic origins.

What is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

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. In 2019, the giant figure was painstakingly restored by volunteers who hammered 17 tons of chalk into the outline.

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 have been 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 people have proposed that the giant dates to only 350 years ago, as it was first recorded in the 1690s. They said 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 True Age of the Chalk Figure

The National Trust, in collaboration with the University of Gloucestershire, has now dated the Cerne Abbas Giant. They report that the largest chalk figure in Britain was probably created in the late Saxon period, between 700-1100 AD. Reflecting on the surprising results, independent geoarchaeologist Mike Allen says, “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.”

Experts used 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 dug trenches to extract samples of soils from the giant’s feet and elbows. According to Papworth :

“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 700 AD, 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 987 AD 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?”

The results also provided a conundrum because the first record of the giant comes from a church warden documenting the figure’s reparation in 1694. Papworth says :

“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?”

Papworth proposes that the Cerne Abbas Giant may have been grassed over and forgotten until “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.”

In the past, the OSL technique has successfully dated another famous chalk figure. The Daily Mail quotes Papworth as saying that the method was “used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s.” The 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 )

The Study of Microscopic Snails

The recent study helps to solve the mystery of the giant and allows researchers to understand its history. Just as importantly it helps them to discover ways to preserve the chalk figure, which needs regular restoration work.

It also supports Mike Allen’s research on the microscopic snails found in the sediment samples. The environmental archaeologist’s work shows that the sediment contains species that were introduced to Britain in the medieval period. However, Allen’s research didn’t find any evidence of the giant having been deliberately covered in the past.

Allen’s research helps experts to understand the environment when the Cerne 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.

National Trust's Senior Archaeologist making site sketches during soil sampling. (Ben Thomas/ National Trust )

An Aura of Mystery Remains

The local community has been 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 wanted to know if the giant was a few centuries or a few millennia old. Papworth says that with the recent research “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.”

The Cerne Abbas Giant is unique and will always have an aura of mystery, but now the National Trust has provided a ‘fly-through’ video so people can enjoy the chalk figure and the mystery surrounding it virtually.

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

By Ed Whelan

Updated on May 12, 2021.

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