Archaeologists determine the age of the Cerne Abbas Giant
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The Cerne Abbas Giant is Britain’s largest and rudest chalk hill figure. Etched into the Dorset hillside is a 55-metre tall naked man wielding what is believed to be a club in his right hand, with an 11-metre erection on full display. It was made by shallow trenches cut into ‘Giant Hill’, which were then filled with chalk rubble. Alongside the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex, the Cerne Abbas Giant is one of two surviving human hill figures in England.
Both have scheduled monument status, giving them protection against unauthorised change.
The site of the Cerne Abbas Giant is now owned by the National Trust.
Yet the prominent man has puzzled people from far and wide for years.
Despite centuries of speculation, nobody knows when or why he was carved.
The BBC documentary Digging for Britain explored the mystery alongside a team of archaeologists.
Dr Mike Allen, an environmental archaeologist, headed to Cerne Abbas in 2020 in the hope of solving the mystery.
He told the documentary: “Everyone in British archaeology knows about him, but we have no clue about what date he is.
“That’s one thing that archaeologists are normally very good at — saying why they’re there, what was happening and what date they are.
“And in this case, we can’t answer any of those questions.”
He joined forces with National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth in a bid to find the answers.
One theory is that the Romans carved the Giant to represent the demigod Hercules, famous for his strength and legendary sexual prowess. He was often portrayed holding a club.
Others suggested he may have been a late Bronze Age figure, and would overlook the landscape on which they farmed.
But earliest written records date to the late 17th Century, backing the legend that the land owner created it to mock Oliver Cromwell, known as ‘England’s Hercules’.
In their search for answers, they received special permission to start excavating. They had to dig down almost a metre to get to the earliest deposits from its constructions.
Little, minute snails proved crucial in their findings. Professor Alice Roberts, the documentary’s narrator, explained snail shells allow them to loosely date the Giant, because some species only appeared after specific points in history.
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Analysis of the snails took the archaeologists by surprise.
Dr Allen said: “Two of the species in here, the helicidae, occur in Britain in the medieval period or later.
“The fact they’re here suggests that the basal deposits and all the deposits above must be medieval or later, which rather blows my idea out of the water that this is a prehistoric monument.”
For a more precise date, they brought in Philip Toms, head of environmental sciences at the University of Gloucestershire.
Luminescence dating allowed him to find out when the sediment was last exposed to sunlight.
After a week of analysis, Mr Toms’ research put the mystery to bed.
He said: “We’ve conducted the analysis and the dates have come out somewhere between 700AD and 1100AD.
“So, given most people’s views were it was either prehistoric or Cromwellian in age, for it to land in the medieval period was a bit of a surprise for everyone.
“That means we’ve got to return to the site and think about our interpretations again.”
Mr Papworth admitted his shock: “This isn’t what we expected at all.”
Dr Allen remains convinced historians may have missed a big clue amongst his nakedness.
Below the Giant once lay Cerne Abbey, founded in 987AD, right in the middle of the period when the Giant was created.
It has been suggested that the Abbey was set up to convert locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith’. The early part of the date range begs the question that the Giant may have been a depiction of that god.
Surviving records from Cerne Abbey, however, do not mention the Giant.
Mr Papworth’s theory is that he may have been a medieval creation that, for unknown reasons, was neglected for several hundred years before being rediscovered.
He said: “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.”
This might help to explain why other sediment samples gave later dates of up to 1560.
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