In CA 365, we reported on efforts to establish the age of the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 55m-tall chalk hill-figure in Dorset. Last year represented a century since the Giant had come into the care of the National Trust, and to mark that anniversary a team of archaeologists and archaeological scientists – led by the Trust’s senior archaeologist in Wessex, Martin Papworth – set out to investigate when the hill figure had been created.
This involved taking samples from the Giant’s feet and elbows for Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating – a form of sediment analysis that can reveal when individual grains of sand were last exposed to sunlight. This technique had already produced illuminating results for other hill figures in southern England, with the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire proving to be late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (see CA 359) and the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex yielding dates from the Tudor period (CA 234). Unfortunately for the Cerne Abbas team, just as their samples reached the University of Gloucestershire, where they were to be analysed by Professor Phillip Toms, the first lockdown restrictions were announced and the material languished for months in a locked laboratory.
All was not lost for the project – archaeological scientist Mike Allen had also been examining microscopic snails recovered from the Giant as part of the research, revealing the presence of species that are thought to have been introduced into Britain in the medieval period – but without the OSL results the picture remained tantalisingly incomplete.
The results are in
That situation has now changed. Almost a year after our last article on the initiative, the OSL results have now been released – and they are intriguing. Material taken from the deepest layer of the Giant’s outline yielded a date range of AD 700-1100, indicating that the hill figure cannot be prehistoric or Roman in origin, as has previously been suggested. Instead, it may have been first created in the late Anglo-Saxon period, and perhaps at around the time that Cerne Abbey was founded nearby in AD 987.
‘The archaeology on the hillside was surprisingly deep – people have been re-chalking the Giant over a long period of time,’ Martin Papworth said.
The results are not clear-cut, however: other samples taken from higher soil layers have produced dates centred on the 13th century, with the upper limit of the OSL date range at one sigma being mid-16th-century. This presents a puzzle for the team, as the earliest surviving written reference to the Giant is a church warden’s account describing repairs to the hill figure in 1694. Meanwhile, 16th- and early 17th-century documents, including detailed surveys of the Cerne area, make no mention of the Giant. Why?
Martin’s current theory is that the Giant was indeed created in the late Saxon period, but that the outline was then neglected, becoming grassed over and forgotten for several centuries, before it was rediscovered and re-cut. Although there is no archaeological evidence that directly suggests that the Giant had been deliberately covered over, it is hoped that future research might shed more light on how the hill figure has changed over time, and if ideas of ‘lost centuries’ are correct.
What the new dating evidence does not tell us is whether the Giant’s design has evolved since its creation. Historian and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the West of England, Brian Edwards, who wrote about the hill figure’s historical context in CA 365, said: ‘The Giant has been regularly reinvented over successive centuries, and is indeed being reimagined when discussing these OSL results. Were a hill figure unearthed in the 17th century, it would inevitably follow the same trend in being viewed first and foremost as something fashionably understood, but may not in origin have resembled what we see now.’
While mysteries remain around the Giant’s past, the new findings do highlight how long-lived the phenomenon of creating chalk hill-figures is in Britain, spanning the prehistoric to post-medieval periods. Mike Allen said: ‘Archaeologists have wanted to pigeonhole chalk hill-figures into the same period. But carving these figures was not a particular phase – they’re all individual figures, with local significance, each telling us something about that place and time.’
For more information on the Cerne Abbas Giant, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cerne-giant; you can also watch a short video about the new dating evidence, including new drone footage of the hill figure, on the National Trust’s YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/nationaltrustcharity.
Martin Papworth has also written about the Giant at archaeologynationaltrustsw.wordpress.com/2021/05/12/cerne-giant-the-osl-dates/
The sediment analysis was jointly funded by the National Trust, University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology, and the Pratt Bequest.