A Giant conundrum: Scientists try for the first time to work out the age of naked Cerne Abbas chalk man carved into the side of Dorset hill
- The carving has never been dated and its origins remain a mystery to historians
- The giant was restored for the first time last year, but scientists now want to know the carving’s age and look for further clues to its origins and who made it
- The land on which the giant was carved is managed by the National Trust charity
Archaeologists are attempting to determine the age of the mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant for the first time.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 55-metre naked chalk figure brandishing a giant club which overlooks the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England.
The origins and purpose of Britain’s largest chalk hill figure remain shrouded in mystery.
The giant chalk figure was gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Pitt-Rivers family.
Now the charity, together with the University of Gloucestershire, is undertaking tests to establish the giant’s age.
An aerial view of the Cerne Abbas Giant, a hill figure near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset
A closer aerial view showing the hillside on which the giant is carved into which was gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Pitt-Rivers family. The charity is now researching the giant
Archaeologists have excavated small trenches to enable samples of soil to be extracted from points on the giant’s elbows and feet.
Over the coming weeks, Professor Phillip Toms, from the University of Gloucestershire, will attempt to date the samples using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).
Martin Papworth, a senior archaeologist at the National Trust, said: ‘The OSL technique is commonly used to determine when mineral grains in the soil were last exposed to sunlight.
‘It was used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s, which was found to be nearly 3,000-years-old – even more ancient than we had expected.
‘We’re expecting the results of the tests in July. It is likely that the tests will give us a date range, rather than a specific age, but we hope they will help us better understand, and care for, this famous landmark.’
Volunteers from the National Trust cleaning and restoring the giant for the first time in 2019
Volunteers working to repair and refresh the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. Archaeologists are attempting to determine for the first time the age of the mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant
Gordon Bishop, chairman of the Cerne Historical Society, said villagers were eagerly awaiting the results.
‘Although there are some who would prefer the giant’s age and origins to remain a mystery, I think the majority would like to know at least whether he is ancient or no more than a few hundred-years-old,’ he said.
‘Whichever may be the case, he is unique.’
In separate analysis, environmental archaeologist Mike Allen will analyse soil samples containing the microscopic shells of land snails to learn more about the site’s past.
‘There are 118 species of snails in Britain and many of them are habitat specific, so their preserved shells can help us establish what a landscape was like at a certain time, and to track changes in land use over time,’ he said.
‘They should help us to discover whether the giant was created on a grazed chalk hillside, or whether people purposely cleared scrub to prepare the land for the figure.’
The giant is located near the village o Cerne Abbas in Dorset and probably the best known of all of England’s chalk carvings thought the giant’s origins remain shrouded in mystery
Last year, the giant was refreshed for the first time in 11 years, with a team of volunteers hammering in 17 tonnes of new chalk by hand to counteract weathering and keep the giant visible for miles around.
Theories as to the purpose of the giant are unclear. Everything from it being an ancient spirituality symbol or likeness of Greco-Roman hero Hercules to a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his puritanism, have been put forward as suggestions.
Local folklore has long held it to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.