Research Shows Cerne Abbas Giant Chalk Figure Is NOT Ancient
In Britain, researchers believe that they are finally able to date the mysterious gigantic chalk figure at Cerne Abbas. The Cerne Abbas Giant has intrigued people for at least a century as its origins became uncertain and lost through time. Now based on an examination of snail shells at the site, experts believe that the giant is not as ancient as once thought and indeed may be an example of 17 th century political propaganda.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is 150-feet-tall (50 meter) chalk figure that was cut into an English chalk hill. It can be seen on a hillside overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas, in Dorset. This figure is of a naked man, wielding a club and it was widely believed to date back to the Roman or Celtic period, at least 2000 years ago. In 2019, the gigantic figure was restored by a team of volunteers who hammered tons of new chalk into the giant’s outline. The land where the Cerne Abbas Giant lies was given to the National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving British heritage sites, a century ago, by the Pitts-Rivers family.
Cerne Abbas Giant’s testicles receive their new layer in the 2008 renovation. (Nigel Mykura / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Dating the Cerne Abbas Giant With Soil Samples and Snails
To mark the centenary of the transfer of the Cerne Abbas Giant to the management of the National Trust, authorities decided to date the figure. In March 2020 a series of tests were carried out to determine ‘‘a ‘date-range’ for when the landmark was created’’ reports the BBC. Similar tests on another famous gigantic chalk figure, known as the Uffington White Horse, in Oxfordshire, revealed it to be 3000 years old.
Uffington White Horse after William Plenderleath (1831 – 1906) from his book The white horses of the west of England (William Plenderleath / Public domain)
A number of soil samples were taken from the giant’s outline and they are being subjected to a series of different tests. The soil testing process has been delayed because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, however, one set of results have come back which related to dead snails found in the chalk lines. The findings were explosive. The snail test results revealed that the Cerne Abbas Giant was far younger than commonly thought.
Medieval Snails Suggest Cerne Abbas Giant is Not That Old!
The Daily Mail quotes Michael Allen, an environmental archaeologist, as stating that the ‘snails including the tiny vineyard snail or 'Cernuella virgata' that were found in the soil samples taken from the giant did not reach England until the late medieval period. This means that the figure could not date to ancient times. Dr Allen is quoted by the BBC as saying that ‘They arrived here accidentally, probably in straw and hay used as packing for goods from the continent’ in the Middle Ages. This most likely occurred in the 12 th or the 13 th century AD.
This finding contradicts previous theories and local folklore. Some experts believe that the giant figure was a Celtic deity because the ‘giant is stylistically similar to a god found on a skillet handle in nearby Hod Hill that has been dated back to around 10–51 AD’ reports The Daily Mail. The fact that the figure is naked with an erect penis prompted many to believe that the giant was related to a fertility cult.
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Cerne Abbas Giant as the God Hercules
Another theory was proposed by a local clergyman, William Stukeley, in the 18 th century AD. He believed that the giant chalk figure was a depiction of Hercules, one of the most popular gods in the Graeco-Roman world. He argued that the giant was carved into the hill by local Romano-British people in the first century AD.
Some believe the Cerne Abbas Giant was modelled on the Roman god Hercules (Paul Stevenson / CC BY 2.0)
The discovery of snails that did not arrive in Britain until the Middle Ages means that these theories are no longer valid. It seems likely that the giant was carved into the hillside sometime in the post-medieval period. One theory claims the giant was created during the English Civil War to mock or satirize Oliver Cromwell, who made himself de-facto ruler of Britain in the 17 th century AD.
Is the Cerne Abbas Giant Political Satire or Propaganda?
It appears that the Cerne Abbas Giant dates from the late seventeenth century AD and was made to serve some kind of political propaganda. The figure was probably commissioned sometime in the 1680s by the future Lord Shaftesbury, a supporter of the Protestant William of Orange, and an opponent of James II, who was a Catholic. The figure was designed to promote an image of William III (William of Orange) as a heroic figure akin to Hercules. The location of the giant on a hillside was probably also highly symbolic. Brian Edwards, a historian, told the Daily Mail that the giant indicates William of Orange “chose ‘to put duty first and [chose] the virtuous uphill path.’’
Edward’s theory is possibly the most credible because, according to the BBC, “The earliest recorded mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant” was in 1694. This was shortly after the Glorious Revolution and the elevation of William of Orange to the British throne. Further tests are going to be carried out to confirm the dating of the giant. However, the new date-range for the creation of the figure is unlikely to damage its immense popularity with tourists.
Top image: Cerne Abbas Giant chalk figure, in Dorset, England is now believed to be less than 350 years old! Source: PeteHarlow / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ed Whelan