Cerne Abbas Giant is an Anglo-Saxon creation, study confirms

For centuries, the chalk figure, sculpted into the Dorset hillside, has been the subject of both fascination as well intense speculation concerning its age and meaning.

An archaeological study of the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 55m-tall chalk figure of a nude male wielding a club, has revealed that the creation likely dates to the Anglo-Saxon period.

For centuries, the chalk figure, sculpted into the Dorset hillside, has been the subject of fascination, and it has provoked intense speculation concerning its age and meaning. It has been suggested that the Giant may be a prehistoric creation honouring a fertility god, or perhaps even a crude representation of Oliver Cromwell.

©National Trust Images/Mike Caln The Cerne Abbas Giant after being re-chalked in September 2019. It was gifted one hundred years ago by the Pitt-Rivers family to the National Trust, and has been in the Trust’s care ever since. Photo: National Trust Images, Mike Calnan, James Dobson.

In collaboration with the University of Gloucestershire, archaeologists from the National Trust conducted small-scale excavations on the hillside to unravel the mystery of the Giant’s age.

The team dug several 1m-deep trenches to reach the oldest material deposits. The samples were then dated using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which determines the last time minerals in the sediment were exposed to sunlight.

‘The deepest sample from his elbows and feet tells us he could not have been made before AD 700, ruling out theories that he is of prehistoric or Roman origin,’ said Martin Papworth, Senior Archaeologist at the National Trust.

‘Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in AD 987 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”. The early part of our date range does invite the question: was the giant originally a depiction of that god?’

Senior Archaeologist Martin Papworth (left), Environmental Archaeologist Mike Allen, and Archaeologist Julie Gardiner collect samples from the figure. Photo: National Trust Images, Ben Thomas.

Any mention of the figure is absent from a 17th-century survey of the area, however, as well as from Cerne Abbey’s 16th-century archives. Papworth theorises that the Giant may have been grassed over and forgotten about for several centuries.

A pre-Tudor date is also supported by the occurrence of a species of microscopic snail introduced to Britain in the late medieval period within the colluvial soil deposits.

Commenting on the significance of their findings, Papworth added: To narrow down a date for him is a great thing to achieve. Future research could tell us even more about how he changed over time, and whether our theory about his “lost” years is true.’

You can find out more about the excavation and analysis here, and the historical context of the Giant here. And look out for further in-depth reports on the discovery in Current Archaeology #376 and Minerva #190.