The green hills of Britain have served as a canvas for large, white figures cut into the chalky land for many years. These striking geoglyphs include white horses – most notably the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire – as well as human figures, and even a kiwi created in 1919 by soldiers from New Zealand stationed in Wiltshire.
Among the human figures is the Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset, a 55m-tall naked man with certain anatomical features emphasised, including a phallus, and a club held aloft.
The largest of Britain’s hill figures, the giant has attracted much speculation and research, leading to several theories about when it was made and what it represents. A prehistoric date had been proposed (the Uffington White Horse is prehistoric, dating from 1400-600 BC), as had Roman origins. It had even been suggested that the giant was much younger, a post-medieval creation satirising the 17th-century Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, with the phallus ridiculing his Puritanism and the club his repressive regime.
New dating research (funded by the National Trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology, and the Pratt Bequest) has revealed that, rather than being an ancient fertility symbol or depiction of the mythical hero Heracles, the giant is in fact medieval. Samples taken from the giant have been studied by Phillip Toms, of the University of Gloucestershire, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL). This dating technique works out when grains of sand in the sediment were last exposed to sunlight. The earliest sediments, recovered from a depth of 1m in the giant’s feet and elbows, yielded a surprising date of AD 700-1100.
Martin Papworth, senior archaeologist with the National Trust, which cares for the giant, explained what this date means in the local context: ‘This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history. Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in 987 AD, 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?’
Despite its current prominence in the landscape, there are no records of the hill figure in the Abbey’s documents. Nor does it appear in a 1617 survey of the area by antiquarian John Norden. Its earliest mention in records comes in 1694, when a church warden carried out repairs. But OSL analysis of other sediment samples has revealed a date of 1560, and archaeologists have found no evidence to suggest the figure was deliberately covered over. The medieval giant, Papworth suggests, may simply have been forgotten and grown over, until one day the light was right for its outline to be seen, inspiring those who happened upon it to recut the figure.
As the research shows, the figure has been rechalked a number of times over its life. This is something that still goes on today as part of the giant’s upkeep, with National Trust rangers and volunteers replacing the chalk roughly every decade.