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Scholars Are One Step Closer to Solving the Mystery of an Enormous Chalk Figure

A new analysis of the 180-foot-tall Cerne Abbas Giant dates the English landmark to between 700 and 1100 A.D.

Researchers have long debated the Cerne Abbas Giant's age, with some dating it to the prehistoric period and others to the medieval era. (National Trust)
smithsonianmag.com

England’s landscape is dotted with massive chalk-line figures carved into the sides of grassy hills. One of the largest—and rudest—of these enigmatic artworks is the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. Standing 180 feet tall, the drawing depicts a well-endowed naked man holding a club.

Who made the chalk pictograph and why they did it remain a mystery. But as Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, a new, high-tech analysis of sand samples collected from the site places the hill figure’s creation between 700 and 1100 A.D.

Archaeologists have long speculated that the Cerne Abbas Giant dates to the prehistoric, Roman or even early modern period. In 2020, researchers used mollusk shells to date the figure to the 13th or 14th century, as BBC News reported at the time.

The new findings by the National Trust, which protects the chalk drawing, now push its age back even further, to the late Saxon period—perhaps around the tenth century.

“This is not what was expected,” says geoarchaeologist Mike Allen in a statement. “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.”

Researchers analyzed sand samples collected from the Cerne Abbas Giant to place its creation between 700 and 1100 A.D. (National Trust)

Early Britons made the Cerne Abbas Giant by digging trenches into the hillside and filling them with chalk. For this latest analysis, researchers dug down to the base of the trenches and took samples of quartz and sand, writes Michael Marshall for New Scientist. Optically stimulated luminescence testing showed the crystals were last exposed to sunlight about 1,000 years ago.

“[The giant] cannot be older than that,” Allen tells New Scientist.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a striking sight. Consisting of the outline of a standing man wielding a large club over his head, the artwork is clearly visible from the opposite hillside or from the air. Three lines on each side of the giant’s stomach represent ribs, while two circles on his chest act as nipples.

But the most prominent feature is what’s below the figure’s waist. Historians theorize that the giant’s prodigious phallus, which measures 26 feet in length, may have been intended as a fertility aid, according to BBC News.

This belief continues to hold sway in modern times. Rebecca Meade of the New Yorker writes that the sixth Marquess of Bath and his wife visited the site in the 1980s after struggling to conceive a child: “‘We were very much in the dark about what he could do,’ Lord Bath recalled. ‘I explained the problem and sat on him.’ A daughter was born about ten months later. She was christened Silvy Cerne Thynne, and the name of G. Cerne was given as godfather.”

For many years, historians posited that the Cerne Abbas Giant was perhaps as old as Stonehenge. Some assigned it to the Roman era, while others thought it might be more recent, as the earliest reference to the chalk drawing is found in a 1694 record from nearby Cerne Abbey. This late date led some scholars to speculate that the image was a 17th-century insult to Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, who deposed Charles I during the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651.

In the statement, senior National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth says the Cerne Abbas Giant was likely created about 1,000 years ago by the local population.

“Cerne Abbey was founded in 987 A.D. 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,’” he explains. “The early part of our date range does invite the question, was the giant originally a depiction of that god?”

After the region’s residents converted to Christianity, they probably forgot about the chalk drawing, which became overgrown with weeds. It was only rediscovered centuries later.

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

Whatever happened, the Cerne Abbas Giant remains visible for the world to see in all its glory. The National Trust carefully maintains the site and regularly adds chalk to the lines so that everyone can view the figure’s rather large features.

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

About David Kindy
David Kindy

David Kindy is a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.

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