United Kingdom

Cerne Giant was constructed in the late Saxon period, study shows

Britain's largest chalk hill figure, the Cerne Giant, was created in the late Saxon period, not as an insult to Oliver Cromwell as previously thought, a new study reveals.

Archaeologists working for the National Trust carried out state-of-the-art sediment analysis of the 180ft naked figure brandishing a giant club to determine its age.  

The origins and purpose of the artwork, overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, have been shrouded in mystery for generations. 

Theories have ranged from 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.

Following the latest analysis of the soil and markings, archaeologists have concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period, between 700 and 1100 AD, and may depict an early Anglo Saxon god known as 'Heil'. 

Britain's largest chalk hill figure, the Cerne Giant, was created in the late Saxon period, not as an insult to Oliver Cromwell as previously thought, a new study reveals

Archaeologists working for the National Trust carried out state-of-the-art sediment analysis of the 180ft naked figure brandishing a giant club to determine its age

The origins and purpose of the artwork, overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, have been shrouded in mystery for generations

HELITH: AN ANGLO-SAXON PAGAN DIETY

Helith, or sometimes known as Heil, was an Anglo-Saxon pagan diety.

The god was likely venerated in the south west of England during the 7th or 8th century, around the time the Cerne Giant may have been created. 

Some historians suggest the name could be linked to a hero or warrior, but also for health and healing. 

Some sources from the 16th century suggest Heil was associated with health and with the Cerne Abbey. 

The abbey was built next to an area that would have been ideal for pagan rites, with rivers and steams that may have been seen as healing waters. 

Phillip Toms, professor in physical geography at the University of Gloucestershire, studied the samples using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).

This technique can show when individual grains of sand in the sediment were last exposed to sunlight and help date them.

Material taken from the deepest layer 3ft below the surface yielded a date range of 700-1100AD, which suggests the giant was first made by late Saxons.

National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said the archaeology on the hillside was surprisingly deep, with people re-chalking for a long period of time. 

'The deepest sample from his elbows and feet tells us he could not have been made before 700AD, ruling out theories that he is of prehistoric or Roman origin.

'This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history,' he added. 

Cerne Abbey was founded in 987AD and some think it was set up to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as 'Heil' to Christianity.

'The early part of our date range does invite the question, was the giant originally a depiction of that god?,' asked Papworth.

Other samples - taken with permission from Historic England and the Secretary of State - gave later dates of up to 1560 AD.

This presented Papworth with a conundrum, as the earliest documented record of the giant is a church warden's account of repairing him in 1694.

His working theory is that the giant may have been a medieval creation but then - for reasons we may never know - was neglected for several hundred years, before being rediscovered by following generations of local residents.

Gordon Bishop, chairman of the Cerne Historical Society, described the results as both intriguing and surprising. 

'What I am personally pleased about is that the results appear to have put an end to the theory that he was created in the 17th century as an insult to Oliver Cromwell. I thought that rather demeaned the giant,' he said.

Following the latest analysis of the soil and markings, archaeologists have concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period, between 700 and 1100 AD, and may depict an early Anglo Saxon god known as 'Heil'

The Cromwell theory suggested that he was crafted just before the restoration by a local landowner and MP, Baron Holles of Ifield, a bitter rival of the puritan leader. 

Charles I tried to have Holles and four other MPs arrested, triggering the Civil War, but he later quarrelled with Cromwell after he had become Lord Protector, describing him as 'too ambitious'. 

Academics claim Holles had the Cerne Giant carved from exile in France in the 1640s, with the club linked to the repressive rule and phallus a dig at Puritanism. 

Material taken from the deepest layer 3ft below the surface yielded a date range of 700-1100AD, which suggests the giant was first made by late Saxons

'It seems highly likely that he had a religious significance, albeit a pagan one. There's obviously a lot of research for us to do over the next few years,' said Bishop.

Mr Papworth said that being able to narrow his creation down to a few hundred year period is a 'great thing to achieve,' with future work potentially narrowing it further. 

'Future research could tell us even more about how he changed over time, and whether our theory about his 'lost' years is true,' he explained.

'When we began the work, some people wanted the giant's age to remain a mystery - but archaeologists want to use science to seek answers.

Cerne Abbey was founded in 987AD and some think it was set up to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as 'Heil' to Christianity

In 2019, 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

'We have nudged our understanding a little closer to the truth but he still retains many of his secrets. He still does have an air of mystery, so I think everyone's happy.'

Local folklore has long held the chalk figure to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.

Theories have ranged from 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.

In 2019, 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. 

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CERNE ABBAS GIANT?

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a chalk figure of an enormous naked man wielding a club carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. 

The giant is one of a number of presumably ancient hill figures that dot the English countryside, such as the Long Man of Wilmington and the White Horse of Uffington.  

The Cerne Abbas giant is uniquely distinctive because of the enormous erect phallus that he sports.

The figure is 180 feet (55 metres) tall and the club he carries is 120 feet (36 metres) long.  

The giant occupies a treasured place in British culture. He's widely believed to have been carved thousands of years ago. 

Folklore suggests he's an ancient fertility god, possessing the power to make childless women pregnant. 

Postcards of him are the only images of a naked man accepted by the British post office. 

But in recent years historians have suggested that the Giant may date only to the seventeenth-century, since the first written reference to it only dates to 1694. 

Furthermore, its creation may have been a prank, they suggest.

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