cientists have begun to solve one of Britain’s greatest archaeological mysteries – the age of one of the UK’s largest and most enigmatic artworks.
Until now archaeologists and historians had thought that a 55-metre tall figure, cut into a hillside in Dorset, the so-called Cerne Abbas Giant, was prehistoric or Roman – or that, alternatively, it had been created in the 17th century,
But new dating tests, organised by the National Trust, suggest that the giant hails from none of those periods and was instead constructed by the Anglo-Saxons.
The tests indicate that the massive hill figure was either fully or substantially created at some stage between the mid-7th century and the 13th century. The new dating evidence has potential implications for understanding some of England’s other surviving and lost giant chalk figures.
Although the new Cerne Abbas Giant scientific dating data suggests that the central part of the new 650-year date range (ie the 10th century) was the most statistically likely era of construction, the currently available wider historical evidence suggests that it may date from the earlier part of that chronological window – the mid-to-late 7th century.
That was one of the most important periods of English history – the era that witnessed much of the Anglo-Saxons’ transition from paganism to Christianity (and the cultural and political struggles that accompanied that transition).
The transition from paganism to Christianity was a politically fraught and sometimes violent process during which traditionalists (often loyal pagans) sometimes ostentatiously championed their cause.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is now a popular tourist attraction
Combining the new dating evidence for the giant with the wider historical evidence, it is therefore conceivable that the vast hillside artwork was created during one of two local pagan resurgences which occurred between AD642 and 655 and again between AD676 and 685.
The Cerne Giant is located in what was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Initially, that kingdom’s joint rulers converted to Christianity in 635 – but one of them died soon after and, when the surviving one died seven years later, his son reverted to paganism.
In the 640s and early 650s, Wessex was conquered and controlled by England’s most powerful pagan ruler, the king of the Midlands-based Mercia. Christianity temporarily returned to Wessex, and was snuffed out again between 676 and the early-to-mid 680s. But by 685, Wessex was Christian again – and indeed launched a genocidal campaign against pagans on the neighbouring Isle of Wight.
Although the Cerne Giant was conceivably an expression of pagan reaction to Christian pressure, it is likely that the local population continued to venerate the vast figure for several centuries.
Indeed, there are medieval and Tudor accounts of legends suggesting that the people of Cerne were loyal devotees of a great pagan deity or idol, apparently known as Helith, Heil or Helio (which would broadly translate as “powerful hero”). It is therefore possible that that deity, idol or venerated “hero” was indeed the great hillside giant.
Read further analysis on the discovery: A giant’s story: How new archaeological research may help reveal England’s long-lost past
One of the greatest mysteries of the Cerne Giant is its close geographical relationship to an important monastery, established in the 10th century. Indeed, the monastery was constructed only 500m away from the giant.
The new Anglo-Saxon date for the great chalk figure (and its potential religious significance for local early medieval Saxons) raises the possibility that the monastery was established specifically to educate the local population out of any remnant pagan practices, including any residual tendency to revere the giant.
The medieval and Tudor accounts of earlier legends certainly suggest that Cerne had been a centre of pagan loyalty, where the local people “dazzled themselves by darkness”. Indeed the late 10th century chief monk of the embryonic monastery at Cerne (an extremely religious man called Aelfric) actually wrote a sermon, while he was there, entitled “De falsis diis” (”About false gods”). That period also witnessed a resurgence of Christian anti-pagan sentiment, and some church leaders even suggested that the Vikings were a scourge sent by God to punish the English for relapses into pagan-originating superstitious ways.
Aelfric was, arguably, the most learned man in all England, so his dispatch to Cerne was probably politically and culturally significant. He was part of an ultra-strict Christian grouping known as the reform movement, which would have taken an extremely dim view of any practices which were pagan-originating or which were not in line with strict Christian practice. He wrote scathingly about virtually everything – from paganism to long hair and from “women drinking beer whilst urinating” to “sex before Communion”. He even dismissed the concept of birthday celebrations, and encouraged people to celebrate “death days” instead because, in Christian belief, they marked a person’s transition to eternal life.
Apart from educating the locals out of bad pagan habits, Aelfric’s task may well also have been to Christianise a pagan sacred location. Indeed, it seems that the man who owned the Cerne area, and who was Aelfric’s patron, was one of the most powerful (and reform movement-supporting) politicians in the kingdom.
Christianising pagan monuments and temples seems to have been quite common. The new probable Anglo-Saxon date for the Cerne Giant may have wider implications for understanding some of the other enigmatic chalk figures of England.
Significantly, the other southern English chalk giant (the Long Man of Wilmington, in Sussex) is conceivably also originally Anglo-Saxon. Certainly that giant has similarities with Anglo-Saxon images on 7th-century metalwork. And, like Cerne, it too has a small monastery immediately adjacent to it.
Most of Cerne Abbas’s medieval monastery no longer exists. The major surviving building – a tithe barn, constructed in the 14th century – is now a house
The new potential Cerne date is therefore likely to help historians more fully understand the epic and often fraught transition from paganism to Christianity in England – and the ways in which the Christian church sought to Christianise important pagan-associated locations.
Commenting on the new Cerne Giant dating evidence, National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said: “Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in AD987 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?”
The dating tests were carried out by Professor Phillip Toms, of the University of Gloucestershire. Prof Toms studied samples recently excavated from the giant, using a dating system known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which shows when individual grains of sand in buried sediments were last exposed to sunlight.
The research has been jointly funded by the National Trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest.
The Cerne Giant is one of the largest artworks in the world. It is 55m high and 51m wide, and was originally created by digging more than 320m of 0.3m-deep trenches down to the chalk bedrock. Over the centuries, crushed and broken chalk was added every generation or two.
The figure has a number of anatomical features – eyes, nose, mouth, nipples, rib-marks and an erect penis. He carries a large club in his right hand – and used to have a cloak or other object suspended or draped from his left forearm. The new dating evidence suggests that he was “constructed” in the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s likely that grass was allowed to obscure him at some stage in or after the late 10th century. Certainly by the early 17th century, he had vanished from view – but appears to have been rediscovered and made visible again by the late 17th century (possibly with help from Restoration period antiquarians).
It is conceivable that parts of the giant were added or “deleted” over the centuries but only further dating tests will reveal that more complex history. So far, the dating tests have only been carried out on a small percentage of the figure’s outline. Although, in terms of historical context, the mid-to-late 7th century would be a likely period for its construction, an 8th century or slightly later date can, as yet, not be completely ruled out.