The earliest recorded mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 180-foot-tall chalk drawing of a nude man wielding a club, dates to 1694. But archaeologists and locals alike have long speculated that the towering figure in Dorset, England, is much older—perhaps even a relic of the prehistoric period.
Now, reports BBC News, an analysis of snail shells found at the site suggests the artwork actually dates to the medieval era.
Mollusk shells may seem like an odd way of homing in on a giant’s age, but as Tom Fish writes for Express, the particular species of snail found in soil samples coinciding with the chalk outline’s creation only arrived in England during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Environmental archaeologist Mike Allen tells BBC News that the tiny snails were introduced to England “accidentally, probably in straw and hay used as packing for goods from the continent.”
Allen adds, “Sadly, this shows the giant is unlikely to be prehistoric or Roman, and more likely dates to medieval times or later.”
In March, the United Kingdom’s National Trust—which has owned the heritage site since its donation to the country in 1920, according to artnet News’ Sarah Cascone—announced plans to scientifically establish the figure’s age using soil samples collected from its feet and elbows. The results of these tests have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and won’t be ready until later this year, but are expected to provide a more precise age estimate than gleaned from the snail shells, reports BBC News.
The National Trust’s archaeologists have made “tentative early suggestions about the age of the Cerne Abbas giant,” but their “full analysis is ongoing and results will be made available as soon as possible,” a spokesperson tells Chris Baynes of the Independent.
Local folklore claims the giant—complete with a 35-foot erect penis—was an ancient fertility symbol. Alternative theories identify the enormous chalk outline as a rendering of Greco-Roman hero Hercules or even a cartoon of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.
The testing that revealed the presence of snail shells also found that the giant underwent periods of being obscured by grass and vegetation, Allen tells BBC News.
“This suggests some people weren’t bothered about the giant or felt he was too rude so left him,” the archaeologist says. “However, during the Victorian period—a time thought of as the most prim and proper—he was there in all his glory.”
As BBC News notes, some researchers have even suggested that the figure’s phallus was originally smaller and only reached its current length due to a Victorian-era revision that merged the figure’s penis with its belly button.
In a statement, archeologist Martin Papworth says the National Trust’s ongoing analysis relies on a technique called optically stimulated luminescence. This more precise approach can determine when mineral grains present in the soil were last exposed to sunlight; back in the 1990s, researchers used the same methodology to date the Uffington White Horse, a 3,000-year-old chalk drawing in Oxfordshire. Test results are expected in the fall.