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The Cerne Giant is being re-chalked to return him to his former glory. Source: Dorset Council/CC BY NC SA 2.0

Like New: Locals and Experts Re-Chalk a ‘Rude’ Giant on a Hill

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A gigantic chalk figure that dominates the countryside in England is being restored. The Cerne Abbas Giant is an enigmatic figure in the rolling hills of Dorset. Moreover, it is infamous because of its phallus. At present volunteers are re-chalking the figure, which is at constant risk of erosion and weathering.

The Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas giant is named after a local village and is 180 ft. (60 meter) high chalk figure on a hillside. It was made by digging trenches into the hill and depicts a naked man with an erection which measures 36 feet long  (11m). The manhood of the giant has made the figure notorious. The figure is wielding a 120 ft. (40 meter) club in his hand. The origins of the chalk figure are a mystery that has perplexed experts since the 17th century.

Diana Kimber, a local, believes that ‘‘he has been there in one form or another for thousands of years,’’ according to The Guardian. There are some who believe the figure represents a Celtic deity while others claim that he represents the god Hercules and dates from Roman times. Some have speculated the giant is a fertility god because of his exposed manhood. Another theory holds that he was created by monks in the Middle Ages.

According to the Cerne Valley website, some believe that the giant was made ‘‘by a local nobleman to lampoon Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century’’. The giant was first mentioned in 1604. The figure has been restored many times down the years. Many believe that in the 1950s and 1960s maintenance workers may have made the giant’s manhood even larger as a joke.

Hill-Side Chalk Figures

The Cerne Abbas giant is only one of many mysterious gigantic chalk figures cut into chalk grasslands in uplands. These include the famous Uffington White Horse, in Oxfordshire. The Smithsonian reports that “It’s a 3,000 year-old pictogram the size of a football field and visible from 20 miles away,’’ and was restored in 2017.

In a beautiful Dorset valley, several dozen volunteers are working alongside rangers and archaeologists from the National Trust to maintain the enigmatic figure. They are restoring the chalk giant which has become somewhat overgrown and weather-beaten since it was last re-chalked, in 2008. The Guardian reports that “he and his impressive nether region were beginning to look a little faded’’.

The Cerne Giant. (Cerne Valley)

Restoring a Local Symbol

Most of those who are working on the restoration project are locals. The work involves clearing away any vegetation that is covering the outline of the figure. Then the discolored chalk will be dug out by the volunteers using mattocks. The old chalk is placed in a plastic bag and is dumped into a ‘‘waiting trailer which, when full, will be tipped into the ruts of a neighboring farm track’’ reports The Telegraph.

Once the old chalk has been removed the second phase of restoration work begins. The Metro reports that chalk from a local quarry will be ‘‘tightly packed in by hand to the existing 1,509 ft outline’’. Mattocks will be used to press the chalk into the outline. The BBC reports that ‘‘17 tonnes of new chalk’’ will be carefully beaten into the giant’s outline.

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

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

The BBC quotes Natalie Holt of the National as stating that the ‘‘work was challenging because of the giant's 55 m (180 ft) height and the steepness of the slope’’. In 2008 it took 60 days to complete and to ensure that the giant can be seen for miles around.

However, the local volunteers are happy to do this heavy work. They view it as a symbol of the area and Kimber is quoted as stating “It’s right that we honor him by maintaining him.” Moreover, they see the giant as important for the local economy.

The Battle to Preserve the Giant

The cooperation and support of the locals are critical for the future of the chalk giant. This is because the outline needs to be re-chalked every 10 years or so. Holt told The Guardian that climate change, leading to heavy rainfall ‘‘may mean it requires more frequent chalking”. It seems likely that more regular work will be needed to maintain the outline of the giant in the coming years.

The Cerne Giant in 2010. (Dun.can/ CC BY 2.0 )

The Cerne Giant in 2010. (Dun.can/ CC BY 2.0 )

The enormous figure lies in chalk grasslands that are of great environmental importance. The land was donated to the National Trust by the local Pitt-Rivers family in 1920. The Trust is planning a number of events to celebrate the centenary of this event.

Top image: The Cerne Giant is being re-chalked to return him to his former glory. Source: Dorset Council/CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Ed Whelan



Gary Moran's picture

Go check out Serpent Mound if you are interested in landscape architecture.

We need one of these in the US.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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