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Cerne Abbas Giant—Dorset's enormous chalk figure—was Saxon, new study finds

Mysterious image still holds some secrets however

Cerne Abbas from the air Photo: National Trust Images. © Mike Calnan, James Dobson

One of the most famous hill chalk figures in England, the 180-foot-tall Cerne Abbas giant, rearing magnificently endowed and club in hand above a village in West Dorset, has been dated for the first time to the late Saxon period.

The results of the year-long study overturns earlier suggestions that the figure was prehistoric or a Roman image of Hercules with his club—and also the theory that the giant is relatively modern, a 17th-century rude joke, more than two fingers raised to Oliver Cromwell.

The research by scientists working with National Trust archaeologists, jointly funded by the trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest, used Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) on grains of sand from the deepest layer of the sediment, which can reveal when they were last exposed to sunlight. It suggests a date of between 700 and 1100 AD, though the enclosure above him, known as the Trendle or the Giant’s Frying Pan, is almost certainly far older, the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.

Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said the archaeological layer was a meter deep, built up by people re-chalking the figure over centuries. “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.”

However, the research does not solve the riddle of the disappearing giant: the enormous figure is unmissable by anyone journeying through the area, and yet for centuries no traveller, local records or land surveys mentioned him. The wealth of folklore, including the unsurprising belief that he could help out infertile couples, is relatively modern, and the earliest documentary account is of a church warden carrying out repairs in 1694.

Papworth has a possible explanation. “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?”

“I wonder whether he was created very early on, perhaps in the late Saxon period, but then became grassed over and was forgotten. But at some stage, 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.”

Gordon Bishop, chair of the Cerne Historical Society, was relieved at the findings which will lead to many happy years of further research. “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.”

Dating such land art, cut into hillsides in chalk downland, is notoriously difficult since many have been scoured regularly and sometimes completely recut. The best evidence - also from OSL studies - suggests that the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire may be 3,000 years old, while there are eye witness accounts of several of the Wiltshire white horses being cut in the Georgian period.

The giant’s image has appeared on everything from beer bottles to a set of motorbike leathers designed by the artist Grayson Perry, and sunrise has occasionally revealed him bearing slogan banners, a red nose, or a football shirt. The site was given by the Pitt Rivers family in 1920 to the National Trust, which recruits volunteers every decade to renew the top layer of chalk.

“We have nudged our understanding a little closer to the truth but he still retains many of his secrets,” Papworth says. “He still does have an air of mystery, so I think everyone’s happy.”