Bestriding a Dorset hillside above the village that gives it its name, the Cerne Abbas Giant has long been a source of fascination – not least the question of how old it is. Is the huge (and impressively ithyphallic) chalk image of prehistoric origin, does it depict a Classical or Saxon deity, or was it a much more recent creation? Establishing a more precise date for the Giant has been an archaeological ambition for well over 25 years, particularly since new scientific techniques have become available.
In 1996, a major academic debate was held between eminent archaeologists (led by Professor Tim Darvill, Bournemouth University) and historians (Professor Ron Hutton, University of Bristol), but no firm conclusions were reached – although the debate did give rise to a book, The Cerne Giant: an antiquity on trial, which was published three years later and explores the various theories about the Giant’s origins.
As for archaeological investigations, a lack of funding had stalled earlier detailed research designs, but in 2020 the National Trust’s North and West Dorset property team were able to raise the money that was required. This year is the centenary of the Pitt-Rivers family transferring ownership of the Giant to the National Trust, and to help mark this event the NT’s senior archaeologist in Wessex, Martin Papworth, led a team of archaeologists and archaeological scientists (Mike Allen) to find out for the first time just how old the chalk colossus really is.
It was an exciting prospect, as other hill figures in southern England had already been dated: Oxfordshire’s great Uffington White Horse was built in later prehistory (Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, c.1380-550 BC – see CA 359), while the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, is a Tudor creation (AD 1545 – see CA 234). Both were dated using Optically Stimulated Luminescence, analysing colluvium (soil washed beneath and against the chalking) for the Horse, and samples taken from the bricks used to outline the Long Man. In March of this year, it was the Giant’s turn.
The project begins
Working in collaboration with Professor Phil Toms from the University of Gloucester, over the course of a week National Trust and volunteer archaeologists carefully hand-excavated four small trenches in the chalk-cut figure, located in the crook of each elbow and the sole of each foot. Measuring just 0.6m by 1.9m, these incisions were carefully positioned at places where the deepest deposits were expected to be present, which would allow the best locations to be selected for taking samples for OSL dating.
This reasoning was based on a walkover survey Martin and Mike conducted in 2019, which clearly showed erosion of the figure, particularly along the legs and upper arms. The Giant had been recently rechalked (restored with fresh chalk – a process that the figure has undergone on a number occasions from at least 1694), but heavy rain had caused some of the new material to wash down the limbs and spill out over the grass at the feet and elbows. The thickness of sediments at these locations was significant: they had a raised chalk-line profile that no longer ran parallel with the steep downland slope on which the Giant is sited. We considered this to be a combination of colluvium (soil washed down the slope by rain) building up against the figure over centuries, chalk spilling from the figure’s outline, slopewash colluvium, and ‘making good’ during the various rechalkings.
These rechalkings had had a dramatic effect on the site: the chalkland soils on this steep slope should only be 20 to 30cm thick, but our excavations showed up to 85cm of deposits associated with the chalking and rechalking of the Giant. Unlike the Long Man of Wilmington, which was originally just painted bricks set in the turf, the Cerne Giant’s outline was filled with clean rammed chalk to leave a sharp white outline. As mentioned above, this process was repeated on several occasions over the last four centuries, and bands of different types of chalk – chalk rubble, chalky marl, and kibbled (water-rolled) chalk – had been used in different episodes, creating banded deposits for us to uncover.
As the excavation progressed, it was clear that the stratigraphy of each trench was closely comparable with the others. The same layers were visible in each, with eight or possibly nine rechalking episodes apparent. At the lowest levels, our section drawings showed a hollowed terrace cut into the steep chalk bedrock, in each case filled with the orange-brown colluvial soils and cut by the earliest of the rechalkings. They represented the first modification of the hillslope and the soils associated these features were most likely to yield the vital evidence for the Giant’s original construction.
Upslope of the chalked lines were spoil and colluvium that had accumulated against the figure’s outline, while downslope we identified similar but subtly and significantly different deposits. At their base was colluvium pre-dating the figure, then spoil and soil relating to the construction and various rechalking episodes, and finally soil and fine chalk gravel, where chalk from the figure had been rain-washed from the outline to spill over the grass.
Dating the Giant
The deposits gave a number of sampling opportunities. Through these different layers we might be able to date the Giant’s creation (though this would always only be a terminus post quem); the colluvium built up against the figure could provide a date during which he definitely existed; and we could examine colluvium below the figure which pre-dated the construction. Phil Toms took nine samples from different locations, allowing us to ponder and suggest the best one to progress (OSL dating is an expensive process and current funding allows us to date just one of the samples, but if further money becomes available the other eight can be used without the need for further excavation). Our trenches were back-filled the same afternoon; as the sun set, the Giant had been returned to his former condition and we were finally able to leave the site.
Results from the OSL dating were expected to be available in May or June – something that would fit well with the Giant’s upcoming anniversary. The National Trust had been pleased to fund the archaeological work as part of their joint centenary celebrations with the villagers of Cerne Abbas, and the excavation team planned to announce their findings in Cerne Abbas Village Hall on 17 July – almost 100 years to the day when the National Trust took ownership of the hill figure, beginning a century of conservation management by the charity. But as with all best-laid plans, things did not prove to be so simple.
As we drove away from the site on 20 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first stage of COVID-19 restrictions, closing pubs, restaurants, and hotels – but we did not appreciate how much more would change. By the following Monday, our OSL samples had reached the laboratories of Gloucester University and were ready to be analysed, but with the announcement of full lockdown, there they have sat ever since.
What next? Help came from a surprising source: the remains of tiny snails. As part of our project, we had also set out to obtain information about the land-use and landscape in which the Giant was set, and as pollen does not survive on the chalk, we had hoped to learn more about the past environment by analysing submicroscopic land-snail shells recovered from archaeological deposits. There are 118 species of land snails in Britain, which live in different habitats (woodland, open woodland, long grassland, grazed pasture, arable fields, and so on). In archaeology, land snails are primarily used for palaeo-environmental interpretation and landscape reconstruction – the presence of different species in sequences of archaeological deposits can help to determine the history of a landscape’s use – but a few also have chronological properties.
Two species (both called the ‘Roman snail’: Cornu aspersum and Helix pomatia) occur for the first time in Britain in the Roman period, and are thought to have been brought over from France as food (escargot). Meanwhile, three other very small species are known to occur in Britain for the first time in the medieval period (13th-14th century): they probably arrived on these shores after being caught in straw and hay used to pack goods being shipped from France and the wider continent. So the occurrence of any of these species may indicate a date after their introduction (although the lack of any of the shells in a sample does not necessarily indicate a date prior to their arrival).
As part of our hunt for snails, ten samples of soil (each weighing 1-2kg) had been taken from the colluvial deposits both upslope and downslope of the chalked figure, as well as from a layer possibly pre-dating the Giant, and those post-dating his construction but contemporary with the extant figure. These were carefully sieved in the Allen Environmental Archaeology laboratory (fragments as small as 0.5mm can be caught in sieves so they can be identified and quantified), and while full and detailed analysis has not yet been undertaken, preliminary examination of some of the shells is already starting tentatively to tell us several important stories.
We can divide our samples into those that are early and may pre-date the Giant, those that are early and contemporary with the Giant, and those that are later (and obviously still contemporary with the Giant). Of the species we identified in the samples, the majority are typical of open short-grazed calcareous downland similar to the pasture we see around the Giant today. However, some samples yielded shells belonging to snails that do not thrive in these dry habitats. There appears to have been a possible phase after the Giant was carved on the chalk hillside when the slope may have been covered in long, unkempt, and ungrazed grassland and shrubs, such as hawthorn and blackberry, which may have possibly partly obscured the figure. In a subsequent phase, though, a community of land snails liking short, dry, grazed grassland seems to return, suggesting that this lush environment did not last.
The second story that the snails hint at is the date the Giant was inscribed onto the hillside. The pre-Giant deposits contain a different group of open country snails to deposits contemporary with the hill figure. The latter layers all contain species like Cernuella virgata and Candidula gigaxii, two of our medieval incomers, while the early pre-monument deposits contain none (in the scanned flots). From this evidence, we can tentatively suggest, at this stage, that the Giant may not be prehistoric, nor even Roman, but may belong to more recent times (as Brian Edwards explores in the second piece on the Giant, see opposite).
Analysis of the environment land-use and hints of the chronology from the snails and soil will continue if funding is available, and full analysis of the OSL date/s will occur as soon as possible. Indeed, just as this magazine was going to press, we received breaking news that the Gloucester University OSL lab is now open, so we hope that we may have a result in the autumn. Watch this space! For now, though, it does appear that the Cerne Abbas Giant may have been a rather more recent addition to the Dorset landscape than some have suggested.
T Darvill et al., The Cerne Giant: an antiquity on trial, by Oxbow Books, £30.
M J Allen, Molluscs in Archaeology, Oxbow Books, £25.
Uffington White Horse and Its Landscape, Oxford Archaeology, £24.95.
M Bell and C Butler, ‘The Long Man of Wilmington: an interim report on a giant conundrum’, in M J Allen (ed.), Eastbourne: aspects of archaeology, history and heritage, Eastbourne Natural History & Archaeological Society, £12.95.
The archaeological portfolio cared for by the NT’s North and West Dorset property team is huge, including six hillforts (among them, Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill), and the Flagstones Neolithic enclosure underlying Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate.
For a day-by-day account of the Cerne Abbas dig, visit the National Trust South West Region archaeology blog: https://archaeologynationaltrustsw.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/the-path-to-the-giant/.
Mike Allen is an Environmental Archaeologist and Geoarchaeologist at Allen Environmental Archaeology. Martin Papworth is the senior archaeologist in Wessex for the National Trust.