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Scientists unravel a mystery about a naked giant carved into an English hill

  Carved into a hillside in rural Dorset in south England, the giant is an ancient cartoon character of sorts, outlined in white chalk. For ...


Carved into a hillside in rural Dorset in south England, the giant is an ancient cartoon character of sorts, outlined in white chalk. For centuries, he has been a source of mystery and fascination, alongside religious and political intrigue.


Who created him? When? And why?


Did the Romans make him 2,000 years ago? He does resemble the virile lion-slayer Hercules. Or is he an older, more obscure Bronze Age Celtic deity? Or maybe he was a later creation, designed to mock the 17th-century Lord Protector of England, the admired/loathed Oliver Cromwell, as the Victorians speculated.


Now, a respected team of archaeologists — examining bits of ancient snail shell and the radiation emitted from single grains of sand — think they’ve definitively nailed down his age. It’s a big surprise, if you’re into this kind of thing, which the English are.


The giant was hewed into the hill in the late Saxon period, between the years A.D. 700 and A.D. 1110 — with the highest probability of A.D. 908, the scientists say.


“Every archaeologist I know, including me, had it wrong,” said Michael Allen, an independent geoarchaeologist and leading expert on ancient mollusks, who participated in the dig. The professionals thought the giant would be far older or younger than he is.


“That’s exciting, isn’t it? We’re brilliant! But it turns out we don’t know everything,” Allen told The Washington Post.


The first documented mention of the giant doesn’t appear until 1694, in a church warden’s account of payment of three shillings to restore the site.


If the new date range of his creation is correct, that means the giant may have disappeared from history for 600 or 700 years — into the weeds and wildflowers, as it were.


These days, the giant can clearly be seen and admired from the nearby road and village. You do not need to be in a hot-air ballon, in a RAF Spitfire or operating a drone to see him in all his glory.


He is one of the most visited of the “hill figures” in England. For pagan buffs? Fertility cults? On the bucket list.


But solving the mystery of the giant’s age leads to more questions: What or who does he represent?


The giant is not only notable for his tall size but his nakedness, specifically his phallus. He’s been a kind of (crumbly) rock star since his rediscovery 300 years ago — and featured prominently in gentlemen’s magazines of the 18th century (not kidding).


“He’s a great conversation piece, that’s for certain,” said Martin Papworth, an archaeologist who has led the research for the National Trust, which owns and protects the site.


The figure was originally created by people digging a trench through the turf on the hillside and then filling the outline with pounded chalk — a soft, white, porous limestone, like the famous White Cliffs of Dover.


Dating the site has been hard. First of all, it’s protected by the secretary of state as a monument of extraordinary significance. There are no animal bones, no camp fire chars, no middens or other sorts of trash heaps to help.


The new date estimate was established with the help of Allen’s analysis of snail artifacts. He knows which ones arrived when in England; it’s complicated.


His colleague Phillip Toms, a professor of physical geography at the University of Gloucestershire, also examined quartz taken from the deepest sediment layer — around 3 feet deep at the giant’s elbows and soles. Toms is an expert in optically stimulated luminescence, which shows when individual grains of quartz were last exposed to a ray of sunshine. The technique has been compared to radiocarbon dating but with light.


“This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history,” states the National Trust report, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. “Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in 987 A.D. 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?”


Meaning? “Was the abbey established to ‘purify’ a pagan place?” wondered Papworth aloud.


Alternatively, the National Trust report asks an obvious question: “Why would a rich and famous abbey — just a few yards away — commission, or sanction, a naked man carved in chalk on the hillside?”


The scientist’s answer? Dunno.


Another possibility: Was the hillside carving an act of outsize graffito?


“It would almost seem to be an act of resistance by local people to create this fantastically rude pagan image on the hillside,” Alison Sheridan, a freelance archaeological consultant based in Edinburgh, told the New Scientist.


“It’s like a big two fingers to the abbey,” she said.


None of the extant records found in Cerne Abbas mention the giant — which is odd.


“Who made him and why? The question remains,” said Martin Bell, professor of archaeology science at the University of Reading, who applauded the new research.


Bell was a lead archaeologist in dating another prominent hill figure — the Long Man of Wilmington — to the 16th or 17th century, also using the technique of optically stimulated luminescence.


There is another mystery within a mystery worth a mention.


The prominent phallus of the giant gets a lot of attention, quite rightly. Postcards from the nearby village are big sellers for the tourist trade. University students, too, once outlined a figure of Marilyn Monroe in white paper on a nearby hill to catch the giant’s eye.


Papworth, of the National Trust, said that when researchers flew sophisticated drones over the site and closely examined the images, they detected the giant’s prominent anatomy may not be original, that subtle shifts in the earthworks suggested alterations, perhaps in the 18th century.


“There appears to be an outline of a belt,” Papworth said, meaning that once upon a time the giant might not have been naked at all, but worn some trousers, or the 10th century version.


More research is clearly needed to get to the bottom of this.

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