Till we meet again

We are sorry dear friends that we will be a bit quiet for a while as we are furloughed to help our great charity weather the storm of Covid 19.

BUT we will be back with many more stories and the reveal of the age of the Giant at Cerne Abbas later in the year.

In the mean time please browse our older posts, we started in 2013 so lots to check out, the word cloud on the right will help you find stories that may interest you, just click on the subject and enjoy.

Till we meet again, keep well and stay safe

View of Brent Knoll from the west on the way back from Brean Down on the coast.

Cerne 12: Companion; Jury; End.

I turn the pages of my blue Cerne Abbas correspondence file….here it is!

Minutes of the National Trust meeting 3rd February 1994. In attendance David, Head of Archaeology; William the Giant’s warden; Ivan, Managing Agent and the local NT archaeologist.

From the lay-by the Giant looked faded. William had recently done some re-whitening …but next year ..with the National Trust’s centenary(1895-1995) , as part of the celebrations, the Giant would get a complete makeover with the help of volunteers.

It was agreed that the rebuilding of his nose the year before had been a success.

Now we needed to build on the experience of the research carried out on the Uffington White Horse.

Action: to organise a meeting between all the interested parties and together build a research project to enable us to get a date for the Giant.

After four years of consultation the research design was created and agreed.

It would include a detailed contour survey of Giant Hill, a review of the local landscape archaeology and documentary evidence…. but particularly excavations across the deeper stratigraphy, clearly visible from a build up of sediments at his feet. This would be the best place to get the samples to obtain an optically stimulated luminescence date (OSL)

…but the funding failed…. The the research design document stayed in the files….. It remained as evidence of what might have been.

22 years later and we approached another centenary. This time the Giant’s centenary. I asked again and Hannah the General Manager said ‘yes, let’s do it …. This is the Cerne Giant’s acquisition centenary year ! (by the way…coinciding with National Trust 125 year celebrations).

And at last we are here, perched on the steep slope of Giant Hill, on the very last afternoon of our week of excavations.

Ben is taking arty shots with the camera, close ups …of the Gamma Spectrometer…, interviews with Nancy, Peter and Carol who are closing down trench D…. the 6H pencil gliding over the permatrace. He tells us about some of the people and places he has filmed and then says he’s done…leaves us the brownies as a gift and waves farewell as he walks down the hill..

A gentle day, not too windy, not too cold, occasional blue sky and high cloud.

Nancy, our ornithologist, has been identifying birdsong when we ask her. Now she calls to us..she has seen a curled adder beside some bramble at the boundary fence. It reminds us of the lizards… watching from wall tops as we cleaned mosaics at Chedworth… the slow worms oozing from crevices…the Roman snails gliding across the grass.

Phil leaves next. He’s going back to Gloucester University with his samples and readings and hopes to have the results by July.

Katherine has got in touch. She reminded me of 1996-97 ..when she and Tim of Bournemouth University had brought a companion to meet the Giant ….and convened a hearing…. to examine the full range of evidence …and agree a date for his creation..

Yes, that was quite a thing. We also did a bit more geophysics on him ….but the results were poor.

Katherine provided for our lonely Giant ….just what he needed…a Giant sized woman carrying a cloak for him. She was marked out in white tape on the hillside… but the Giant seemed unfriendly… almost aloof “she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” and remained staring forward ….out across the undulating Dorset landscape.

So she went away… after photographs of course.

The Companion kindly provided for the Giant by Bournemouth University in 1997

The Giant’s trial took place in the village hall where ‘archaeologists, historians, poets and earth people’ met and debated the evidence. The result? ..42 thought he was prehistoric, 29 thought he was either medieval or post-medieval, 12 that he could be both and there were 9 who spoiled their ballot papers…couldn’t make up there minds i suppose….. so there we are…and of course that was long ago.

This is the 21st century!

Mid-afternoon, and Mike and Julie call it a day. They have collected and documented the soil samples for molluscan analysis and micromorphology. They ask whether we can bring the chalk blocks from the upper and lower chunky chalk layers to identify which geological beds they were quarried from.

The four of us press on. Peter, Carol and Nancy have moved to the right foot trench B and I am plotting location plans for each of the four trenches. The feet are done…just the elbows now.

There are legends of course. That he was a Giant who terrorised the neighbourhood and having had his fill of killing and eating the local flocks of sheep. He lay down on the hillside to sleep and the villagers crept up and killed him…marking out the outline of his body….as a memorial.

And what of the mysterious letters or numbers recorded between his legs by John Hutchins in the 18th century. He was told they read IAO but believed they were numbers… 748 perhaps orginally 1748…one of the dates of rechalking? Anyway it is said that a labourer removed them in the 19th century and nothing now can be seen.

Perhaps our planned high resolution laser scan will pick up any subtle traces left behind.

Anyway, I’ve finished the drawing now…It’s gone 5.30 and Nancy chucks me a spade. I go to trench A, the left foot, and backfill in reverse order leaving the chalk until last of course. I mustn’t get too enthusiastic or the stones bounce out and roll down the slope. I want to leave him in good condition and emulate the fine backfilling and returfing already completed at the elbows.

The sun is low in the west by this time I get to the turf. We’ve done a lot of jumping on the fill and tamping with the heavy steel tampers. We’ve borrowed them from Michael the Area Ranger who has looked after the Giant since William’s time.

With excavations… there is always too much soil to fit back in the trench. It fluffs up during a dig …but it needs to all go back in, otherwise, when after a few decades it compresses again…your excavation will be clear to see as a dip in the ground.

A gloomy last picture of a backfilled trench B at the right foot of the Giant as the sun sets

One last picture of the backfilled trench to fulfill the scheduled monument consent condition

It’s getting dark now. Peter and Carol load up with tools and follow the terraced path down the slope towards the stile.

Nancy and I look around to see what’s left.. quite a lot, including a tamper. “Don’t forget the chalk blocks”. I use gravity and they roll and bounce down the hill and the big one breaks in half as it hits the Giant’s boundary fence.

They’re retrieved when we reach the stile and are rammed into the top of the bucket. I somehow balance the tamper over it as we stagger down the rickety wooden steps.

Through the gate, the coppice avenue is gloomy twilight. This is two trips, best leave the rest and take the tamper and drawing boards to the car.

I pass Nancy on the way back and…. at last… we are finished in a dark car park. Carol has to go to her family north of Bath …we thank her fondly and say goodbye.

Why are last days like this?

I have chucked my car keys in the boot with the tools. Peter brings his torch to locate them and they are found.

That’s it..we stand together as night settles. We did it ….but only just…the world is closing down around us.

“When shall we three meet again in thunder lightening and in rain. When the Hurley-burley’s done. When the battle’s lost and won”

We smile and I give them my thanks ….and blessing as we drive off to Gloucestershire, Weymouth and Wiltshire.

Passing through Godmanstone towards Dorchester, I think of William, David and Ivan… It took a quarter of a century but we did it in the end.

Cerne 11: The Science of Soil

Mike and his wife Julie have arrived early and have already begun the sampling. He will wait in the car park for Phil from Gloucester University,

We were afraid that he might have to cancel but it is fine.

He arrives and I say hello before carrying the drawing equipment up the hill.

Julie is in the right foot trench taking samples from the side I have just drawn. I have left the tape and line level across the north facing section and continue measuring the various layers of soil and chalk.

The auger slot in trench B after drawing the section.

I’m never quick enough and it takes me so long but it is a crucial job and it must be done right. In the end, the section drawings and the samples are the gold we will mine out of these little quarries into the Giant.

Phil and Mike tour the trenches and discuss what we have revealed, They are particularly pleased with the orange brown colluvial (hill-wash) accumulation cut by the bottom chunky chalk layer. These layers survive in the foot trenches A and particularly B and rest on the hollowed terrace cut into the chalk… which… according to the reading of the section…is the earliest human event at the Giant.

If Phil can date the colluvium we can date the Giant.

I finish with B and move on to Nancy’s trench A, the left foot. I like this one. The lower chunky chalk cutting hasn’t penetrated the chalk and the colluvium running under it. As indicated elsewhere, the natural hill slope has been artificially cut away and the colluvium sits in it.

Ben interviewing Mike on the severed head from Nancy/s trench A at the left foot…lovely section.

Julie calls me up to C… the elbow of the club wielding arm. Mike describes blocks of soil he has collected in sealed silver trays. These cross the layers I have numbered and described. I write down his reference numbers and measure the sample areas onto the section drawing.

This sample, he explains, is for molluscan analysis. Tiny snails living in the soil, their distinctive shells survive well in a chalk soil. They are very fussy about the environment they live in and their shells in sediments can tell us what the hillside was like during different periods.

Mike explains that one of the shells he has spotted was only introduced to Britain in the medieval period and if this is found in the lower colluvium it will extinguish our hopes of a Roman or prehistoric Giant.

His other samples are to study the soil micromorphology. The analysis of this, in the lab, will help us understand the process of sedimentology that caused the soil to build up within and around the Giant’s figurative trenches… during the different phases of his formation. How much is natural and how much is caused by human action.

There are several cylindrical holes too. Here, sections of black plastic pipe about 3cm in diameter have been knocked into the section and sealed. These are for the optically stimulated luminescence dating. Even if we don’t have the funds to date all of the samples they can be stored for future analysis.

Phil is now down in the right foot, Trench B. I go to visit him. There are several OSL holes but the widened section of the trench has been used to place an auger horizontally against the colluvium at the bottom of the trench and drill a deep core into it.

I find the hole filled with a cylindrical device about 6cm in diameter with a wire leading from it to a yellow data logger.

Phil taking the Gamma Spectroscopy reading in the right foot trench B

This is new to me. I ask him what it is and he says it is a Gamma Spectrometer. I try to look intelligent and to ask intelligent questions. Phil explains that it measures gamma rays emitting from a source. Most materials contain gamma rays but chalk is largely inert and produces very low quantities.It will take time to collect the data. This will be the reference point for the date we hope to obtain from the sediments.

OSL relies on calculating the time since the sediment was last exposed to sunlight…or was optically stimulated. I ask Phil how accurate it would be, whether it would be successful. He spoke to me in science and gave me a politicians reply. I would have to wait and see…there was a good chance…with a fair wind at our backs, a calm sea and a clear sky….and precision measuring back at the university.

The numbered samples marked onto the grubby section drawing. The OSL samples are the blue circles .

Ben turned up and introduced himself. He had been sent by head office to film us. The BBC and none of the other communications people could now come.He had half expected to be called off himself but he was pleased to meet us and the Giant. He had some questions to ask me..

We stood near the Giant’s left shoulder and i tried to say optically stimulated luminescence to camera and failed. Below me, Mike was augering the low grassy mound of the severed head. I went over and inspected his soil column. Definitely an archaeological feature, we would have to do some geophysics before deciding whether further excavation was justified.

I suggested that Ben interviewed Mike and Phil who would explain things better than me and of course Nancy, Peter and Carol who were putting back Trench C to a state as close to the way we had found it as possible….slidy boot marks would disappear in time.

Yes things were progressing nicely on this the last day. Just finish drawing the Trench A section and mark the trenches on the plan.

It’ll be fine.

None of this going home in the dark nonsense.

Cerne 10: The Luxury Portacabin

You join us at lunch time on the last day. We are spaced round the table of out diesel driven portacabin. Nancy’s birthday flowers decorate the centre.

Our diesel driven portacabin with evidence of a heater clearly showing in the interior… and it worked!

In a couple of hours we will lose it..so we are taking advantage of the facilities Did I mention the kettle. microwave and heater? The metal shutters are pulled back for a view of the fields.

There is a furious debate taking place. How is it that the toilet light comes on when the generator is off? One of those questions that will haunt us…

Like, who built the Cerne Abbas Giant and who does he represent?

He looks very good for the Roman god Hercules with a nobbly club raised above his head and an outstretched arm which could easily have once had a lion skin draped over it.

Rodney Castledon in 1989-89 and A.J, Clarke in 1979 both carried out geophysical surveys below the arm and found a shape that could be the silted up ditches which might be interpreted as a folded cloak or skin.

Then the Trendle… the square earthwork at the top of the hill above the Giant’s head (we need to geophys it).

That would be the right size and position for a temenos enclosure surrounding a square Romano-Celtic temple. We excavated one at Badbury Rings and this had a typical square sacred building or cella surrounded by a covered lean-to walkway or ambulatory. The position of the Trendle in the landscape reminds me of the temple at the National Trust’s Brean Down in Somerset.. placed high on the hill to command views across the landscape.

The Trendle is just visible as a rectangle above the Giant’s head on the crest of the down.

Nearby, are the earthworks of the Giant Hill Iron Age settlement…so a local population to tend and worship at the temple. They lay out an image of the cult figure on the steep slope below… for all to see.

It would be a typical situation…that a local celtic god would adopt the nearest appropriate classical god. There is the temple of Sulis (Celtic) Minerva (Roman) at Bath and here it may be Cernunnos/Hercules. Stone carvings of severed heads have been found in Dorset and a representation of Cernunnos would have him clutching a severed head…..apparently.

Up on the Giant…below the outstretched arm… there is an irregular head-sized mound and the geophysical survey revealed features …it was argued… that could be attributed to a head.

It is in just the right position for the Giant to hold below his hand.

Brian phoned me, he’s the historian who is kindly going over all the documentation he can find which might throw light on who made him and why.

‘Had I heard of the ‘Choice of Hercules’? ….No I hadn’t.

It’s the ancient story of Hercules at the crossroads. Does he choose pleasure or virtue?

The Choice of Hercules
The Choice of Hercules by Paulo Matteis 1662-1728. Note that he is depicted with a club and lion skin. Virtue is speaking to him. There are similar paintings by Annibale Caracci, Sabastiano Ricci and Nicholas Poussin (that one is in the Natonal Trust’s Stourhead collection}.

It was a favourite topic for artists of the 17th and 18th centuries. The problem with this idea is that our Giant at Cerne is on his own. He should have a woman on either side of him to help him decide. He may well have decided already.

Brian said that he could have found us the inspirational owner who commissioned the Giant. He was known as The Great Freke. The third son of John Freke of Cerne Abbey, Thomas Freke became a politician with an independent point of view. He eventually became Sheriff of Dorset and inherited a large estate. He was the owner in 1694 when the 3s repair of the Giant was entered in the churchwardens accounts.

We just need the document that proves it….so many aspects and possibilities surrounding the Giant

Time to say goodbye to our luxury portacabin and climb the hill to the Giant one last time.

Ben the cameraman consoles us.

He has walked along the river to the village and brought back chocolate brownies.

Are the shops still open? Apparently they are.

We are going to meet the scientists.

Cerne 9: From a Distance

The view from above.. must be strange. Who are these small people digging at the elbows and feet of the Giant?

The two circling ravens are unconcerned as they drift over me. The kestrel spots a movement in the grass and suddenly plunges, like a spear thrust.

We would be more interesting to the people stopping at the distant lay-by viewpoint …but understandably, there have been fewer cars there as the week has progressed.

showing the sites of the 4 excavations clockwise from bottom right trenches A B C and D (photo John Charman Cerne Historical Society)

I have been drawing the trench sections on a windy overcast day and thinking about the profile of the chalk bedrock.

Below all the rechalking layers there has clearly been a resculpting of the hillside at an early date.

I must admit that for some time I have been almost persuaded that he is 17th century … but my mind is not closed… especially after reading some of the references that Gordon from the Cerne Historical Society has lent me..particularly Tom Shippey’s booklet published in 2016.

The next Giant reference, after 1694, is by Rev Francis Wise, writing in 1742. However, the Giant is only mentioned briefly because his main topic is the Uffington chalk horse in Oxfordshire.

In 1753, Dr Richard Pococke gives a more detailed description:

‘it is called the Giant and Hele….It is supposed that this was an ancient figure of worship and one would imagine that the people would not permit the monks to destroy it. The lord of the manor gives some thing once in 7 or 8 years to have the lines clear’d and kept open’

So three useful things..that he is known as Hele…the monks of Cerne Abbey are mentioned….and there is a tradition of clearing the Giant’s lines but it does not sound like a large rechalking.

Cerne Abbey is supposed to have been founded by St Augustine who came to England in 599. A 12th century account describes his visit to the village. In 1237 William of Coventry also mentions the visit to Cerne saying that it was in Dorset where the god Helith was once worshipped.

This morphs again when Wiliam Camden visited Cerne at some time before 1586.Once again he mentions St Augustine’s visit but this time adds that he broke to pieces ‘Heil the idol of the heathen English-Saxon and chased away the paganish superstition’

Cerne Abbey was a Benedictine monastery founded in 987 and its first abbot was Aelfric who was known as a great writer.

Surviving records of the monastery and Aelfric’s writing contain no mention of the Augustine story or Heil or the Giant…and would such a wealthy and influential abbey have turned a blind eye to the figure on the hill and its regular maintenance.

But in the 16th century, Camden links Cerne to a 7th century story of Heil and Cerne’s pagan worship and in 1753 Pococke states that the Giant was known as Hele.

All very tenuous but something suggesting a greater distance in time than a baroque Hercules creation.

Looking at him…such an enigmatic creation. You could use that word unique for him. Iconic…why not?

Like a jewel held up to the light. So many facets to consider. Certainly a work of art. Someone designed him…not really a community project. A creation by an innovative individual who wasn’t that bothered about offending people.

At National Trust properties there are generations of quite standard owners..they kept their places ticking over,,,,followed the fashions…. and then someone remarkable would be generated. William John Bankes at Kingston Lacy, John Ivory Talbot at Lacock or William Benson perhaps at Brownsea. People who broke the mould. The landowner who created the Giant would be someone like that I guess.

I have finished drawing Pete’s trench C and slide down the hill to draw Carol’s right foot trench B.

Keith the Historic England Inspector is there and Mike is discussing the need to cut a slot in this trench so that a auger could be screwed into the section to take the most crucial soil sample. After Mike’s explanation, Keith gives consent for this added intrusion into the scheduled monument.

However, we cannot dig a small trench in the ‘severed head’ but we can auger a soil column through it tomorrow. Keith thinks that further geophysical survey would be worthwhile to compliment the earlier work by Rodney Castledon and we agree.

We finish late. I draw the section and the auger cut is excavated.

I tickle the section with my trowel and the full length of the wooden stake is revealed. Mine had survived from the upper chunky chalk, Pete’s also but Carol’s stake runs right up to the top of the kibbled chalk so these pieces of wood become less exciting… dating from the 1956 rechalking at the earliest.

The timber stake in the right foot trench B driven in from the top of the kibbled chalk layer.

Last day tomorrow.

Cerne 8: Drawing the Sections

It’s Thursday, day 4, and I need to draw the sections before the soil samples are taken on Friday.

We have spent three days excavating the 4 trenches into the Cerne Abbas Giant and today Mike will return and assess what we have found and choose the places for samples.

Phil the Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) specialist would arrive on Friday and everything needed to be ready by then.

Outside, the air is damp. A light misty rain. I go in the garage and pick out a long thin metal fencing stake and look for a wide umbrella and find an old shower curtain…well it might work.

I’ve got used to the journey down now. Turning off the A303 at Compton Pauncefoot. What a great name! …and then the wiggle down through back roads guided round Sherborne via sat. nav. past the ruined castle and then down the A352.

I like the geology of the vernacular buildings, quite different in this part of Dorset, and then beyond Holnest…a lonely church in a field. Where did its village go? Some plague or something I suppose.

I turn off radio 4 and head up to the Giant with Mike. We look at the trenches. We agree that the depth of the deposits is completely unexpected. He is the soils man and will tell a story from their complexities, similarities and differences.

I let Mike know that Keith from Historic England will come out today. We have asked permission for a small amount of additional digging to possibly examine ‘the severed head’ and to fit the soil sample auger into a trench.

Pete, Carol and Nancy have some additional excavation to do to finish off their trenches so I start to draw D across the upper line of his outstretched arm.

I have brought up an A2 drawing board, the steel fencing stake and a bucket of tapes and tools.

These include a hammer, which I use to bang in the stake …downslope of the trench. The ground very slidey down there on the the wet.steep slope.

I bludgeon a 6 inch nail into the chalk slope in the trench and tie a string to it. I wind it out to the stake and rummage in my pencil case for the line level which I hang off the string until the bubble is dead centre and the string is level.

I will choose 1:10 as my drawing scale and sharpen a 6H pencil. I fix a tape measure beside the string for the horizontal readings and carry a hand tape for the verticals.

I am ready ….and a fine mist of rain falls. The shower curtain is hopeless…it drips more on the plastic drawing film than keep moisture off it. I stuff it back in the bucket. The film is ‘dimensionally stable’ …tracing paper would rip and warp in heat and moisture…but the film does not perform well on a day such as this ….and this is the only day to draw so it can’t be helped.

As a right-hander, I will do everything top left to bottom right so that my muddy wet hand will not wipe out everything as I draw it. If I make a mistake the rubber will create a blurred pencilly smudge. My hands are already cold.

I begin to draw…that bottom chunky chalk layer…how old is that?

Was it this layer that marked out the figure that the 18th century antiquarians got excited about.

After all those previous centuries of nobody bothering to mention the Giant (perhaps because he wasn’t there), suddenly, in the 1750s-70s, it was brought to the attention of the Society of Antiquaries in London and there was a flurry of activity and we get our first drawings of him.

Rev John Hutchins came to the village and interviewed people in their 80s and 90s who as boys had spoken to elderly villagers who confirmed that the Giant had been on Trendle Hill ‘beyond the memory of man’. He then spoke to the steward of the estate who said it had been created by Lord Holles’s servants which, if true, would date it to the mid 17th century.

Rev Hutchins published an edited version of a measure illustration of the Giant in his great work on the History of Dorset… but the complete drawing was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1764.

File:Cerne-abbas-giant-1764.jpg - Wikipedia
The giant as measured and drawn and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1764. There is a rougher drawing of 1763 but this is the best early representation of him. Note that his his navel is clear in this drawing.

By the afternoon the sky had dried and I was able to complete D and move on to Pete’s trench C.

The drawing looked very muddy but what the section profiles were showing was a chalk figure which had shifted downslope over time… and underneath the cutting for the bottom chunky chalk layer was something else… a clear terrace cut into the natural chalk slope.

Was there something much older here after all ?

Cerne 7: Naming of Parts

This is about the Cerne Abbas Giant… and if you have stuck with these blogs or indeed have just bumped into them…

you join us late on day 3.

The scene is a windy gloomy hillside in central Dorset

The diggers assemble from the four trenches.

They gravitate towards Trench B.where Carol is investigating the sole of the Giant’s right foot….Nancy rises up from the left foot (Trench A) and Pete and I pull ourselves out of our excavations and slide down the hill from the elbows. C is carved into the club wielding right arm and I am at D, the outstretched arm.

How do our trenches compare? We sip tepid coffee from cooling thermos flasks. The sun is sinking.

Yes, we each have the three compacted chalk layers 2019, 2008 and 1995 pummelled by steel tampers once wielded by National Trust rangers, volunteers and wardens. They crush the top of a 0.3m deep cutting, filled with ‘kibbled’ fragments, placed there perhaps in two phases 1979 and 1956 courtesy of E.W Beard, contractors of Swindon. They first proved their worth as the re-chalkers of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire (another National Trust property). The Ministry of Works recommended them.

Further down, below a rammed layer lies the chunky chalk. I have it 0.2m deep but the others have lost much of theirs. Cut away by the kibbled events. Below this is the thin crust which caves into the soft silty chalk… we all have this up to 0.1m deep.

Carol says this scrapes away onto the more solid pasty chalk. I mention the bluey brown film on the top of this and we all nod sagely.

The pasty chalk beneath the silty chalk which lies below the upper chunky chalk

Peter interjects “but what of the lower chunky chalk”.

We are amazed… beneath the ‘pasty’ layer there lies a greater and deeper chunky chalk with lumps just as large as in the upper deposit…but this time… mixed with flint nodules. When this is dug out…. it is up to 0.3m deep and probing through this we hit proper geological chalk.

The full section of the chalk line down to the lower chunky chalk cut into the geological chalk

“How will you know when you find ‘the natural chalk?” asked Beth,’ the cake-maker’, on Nancy’s birthday.

Nancy and I gave each other a knowing look. “it rings” we say “scrape it with a trowel…. and it rings”

They call it easing the Spring. It is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb; like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
(Henry Reed)