The outline of an enigmatic giant some 235ft tall occupies the steep north slope of Windover Hill, near Wilmington in East Sussex. It is known as the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’, and key questions about this figure – when, who, and why? – have preoccupied me for 40 years. The blank image leaves us guessing who it is supposed to represent. People have often assumed that the Long Man is ancient, and in 1983, when I reviewed the available theories, the presence nearby of flint mines and two long barrows suggested to me that a Neolithic origin was possible, although the figure itself offered very little evidence. The stretching of the figure (making it easier to read from ground level) implied a modern origin, though, and once an early modern origin had been attributed to the Cerne Abbas Giant – another towering hill figure, this time in Dorset – it became fashionable to see the Long Man in the same light.
These discussions took shape in the 1980s, when the ‘absence of evidence’ argument was used to promote a late origin for the Cerne Giant – at that time, the earliest known drawings of both figures dated from the mid-1760s – and since then some historians and archaeologists have striven to prove that both giants are early modern in date. Stylistic and constructional differences between the figures suggest that they were made at different times for different purposes, though, and an early modern date for one does not prove an early modern date for the other. Further evidence continues to emerge: in the 1990s, a drawing of the Long Man dating to 1710 was discovered, while the earliest record of the Cerne Giant was trumped when Vivian Vale discovered a 1694 mention of repairs to the hill figure. (CA 365 has more on recent research at Cerne Abbas.) The dates are gradually being pushed back – and now forensic dating techniques have pushed them back even further.
From Roman pavement to Tudor brick
In the 1990s, I kept finding small weathered fragments of orange brick close to the outline of the Long Man. I suspected that they were pieces of the ‘Roman pavement’ under the grass that was described in the 18th century – the fabric certainly looked like Roman brick – and two other pieces found on the outline by Eric Holden in 1969 had been tentatively identified by Barry Cunliffe as Roman. When I examined both Holden’s and my own samples under a microscope they looked very similar, and in 2002 I sent one of my brick fragments for thermoluminescence (TL) dating.
As it happens, between my visits to the Long Man, Martin Bell at the University of Reading had opened a trench at the foot of the figure for Aubrey Manning’s TV series Landscape Mysteries. He had found a layer of the same brick fragments, taken some for TL dating, and backfilled. Martin and I had both acted with permission from Sussex Archaeological Society, but neither of us knew about the other! The lab, dating our samples at the same time, naturally assumed this was a single project and put us in touch. Martin’s sample dated to around AD 1550, mine to around 1600 because it had spent some time exposed above ground. Together, they proved that an orange brick outline had existed in the 1550s and subsequently disintegrated in situ.
What did the outline look like? Since 1969, the Long Man has been picked out in white-painted concrete blocks, marking out a tall figure with a thin rod in each hand. These blocks replaced yellow bricks first installed in 1873-1874, as well as red bricks that were added during repairs in the 1890s. But what was there before 1873? My 1996 resistivity survey, part of a search for changes in the Long Man’s shape, indicated that the staves were originally 3m taller, with the westerly one bending sharply down at the top into a straight diagonal. This reminded me of the scythe shown in a drawing of the figure by William Burrell in 1766, though the survey plot suggests an implement more akin to a crook or flail. I also scrutinised a specially commissioned enlargement of the photo taken immediately after the 19th-century (yellow) bricking, which showed faint traces of earlier positions of the legs – more splayed, with feet turned outwards and toes pointing downhill.
Interpreting the giant
In 2004, Chris Butler dug six small trenches at the site, partly to ground-truth the pre-1873 variations implied in my survey. (You can read the interim report at www.cbasltd.co.uk/copy-of-sovereign.) On the Long Man’s head, there was clear evidence of a semicircular trench cut to the solid chalk and filled with chalk rubble – probably a relic of the attempt by the Reverend Dearsley in 1889 to ‘restore’ a presumed ancient trench outline. Dearsley’s restoration was halted by the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1890 because it was seen as a failure; rain quickly eroded the rubble fill. According to documents held by the Society, Dearsley had completed only the upper half of the figure, and he described his trench as 12 inches wide, yet I notice that in 1969 Eric Holden discovered a similar rubble-filled trench two-thirds of the way down the right stave, significantly lower than Dearsley’s intervention, and it was 24 inches wide; the fill included what we now know was Tudor brick. But this semicircular trench was not seen in the other sample pits, so its status is unclear.
The 2004 excavation proved that the left stave did indeed once continue another 3m up the hillside as the resistivity survey indicated, but to my frustration heavy rain saw the work cease just as I saw the uppermost part of the ‘flail’ emerging. The investigation on the site of the original position of the left foot was thought by others to show no subsurface trace of an earlier outline, but it seemed to me that a lens of brown sand might have been the remains of disintegrated Tudor brick, which had a high sand content. Sections of these trenches have yet to be published.
We have established that the Long Man is a succession of brick outlines made in the 1550s, 1873-1874, 1891-1892, 1896, and 1969. The bricking in the 1890s was partly to reverse Dearsley’s ‘restoration’, to put back the bricks he had removed, but also to replace yellow bricks deliberately pulled out by vandals. The new bricks were red, so the figure was painted white (and then green during the Second World War, to disguise the landmark from enemy aircraft). The possibility remains, though, that the Tudor bricking was preceded by a still earlier brick outline that has completely disintegrated. The origin of the Long Man remains indefinite, but if the Tudor giant was the original, why was it made? My suggestion is that the Long Man was made as a protest against the persecution of Protestant martyrs in the 1550s. The most prominent Sussex martyr was Richard Woodman, an ironmaster from Warbleton who was burnt in Lewes with nine other men and women on 22 June 1557; the Long Man does look towards Warbleton, some ten miles away.
Woodman was taken to London twice to be interrogated by the infamous Bishop Bonner – known as ‘Bloody Bonner’ for his persecution of ‘heretics’ – and sympathisers in Sussex may have assumed he was racked, though in truth he wasn’t. Possibly the staves of the Long Man symbolise this instrument of torture, the curious ‘flail’ one of its levers, and the elongation of the figure the stretching of Woodman’s body. Open protest was dangerous; an anonymous, enigmatic gesture would have been safer. In such a scenario, those who made this icon of religious persecution understood the need for secrecy, which would explain why there is no surviving story to explain it – a lack of tradition that led to many of us assuming the Long Man was ancient for so long.
R Castleden (2003) ‘Shape-shifting: the changing shape of the Long Man of Wilmington’, Sussex Archaeological Collections 140.
R Castleden (2012) The Wilmington Giant: the quest for a lost myth, 2nd edition.
All images: courtesy of Rodney Castleden, unless otherwise stated