Cerne Abbas Giant’s likely age revealed but air of mystery remains

Local folklore has long held the chalk figure to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.

The Cerne Abbas Giant
The Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas Giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period, according to new analysis which has surprised archaeologists and historians.

The 180ft (55m) naked chalk figure brandishing a giant club overlooks the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset.

Its origins and purpose have been shrouded in mystery, but experts can for the first time reveal the likely age of the giant.

Cerne Abbas Giant cleaning
The Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset (Ben Birchall/PA)

Following state-of-the-art sediment analysis, 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 is 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,” he said.

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 (3ft/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?”

Other samples – taken with permission from Historic England and the Secretary of State – gave later dates of up to 1560, which presented Mr Papworth and his team with a conundrum, as the earliest documented record of the giant is a church warden’s account of repairing him in 1694.

Mr Papworth’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.

Gordon Bishop, chairman 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.”

Mr Papworth added: “To narrow down a date for him is a great thing to achieve, and we’re closer now.

“Future research could tell us even more about how he changed over time, and whether our theory about his ‘lost’ years is true.

“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.”

Local folklore has long held the chalk figure to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.

Theories have ranged from an ancient spirituality symbol or likeness of Greco-Roman hero Hercules to a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his puritanism.

In 2019, the giant was refreshed for the first time in 11 years, with a team of volunteers hammering in 17 tonnes of new chalk by hand to counteract weathering and keep the giant visible for miles around.

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