Cerne 4: Below the Turf

Central Dorset in late March on the rarely travelled and rather beautiful road from Sherborne to Dorchester.

Cerne Abbas lies between Minterne Magna and Godmanstone. The Cerne Giant looks out at me from the hillside as I turn left into the village hall car park.

The Cerne Abbas Giant with an square earthwork enclosure known as the Trendle on the hill top above his head. This may be a prehistoric or Roman site but the site is still used for a Maypole and Morris Men dancing on May Day.

The blue sky and warming sun of yesterday lured us in. The second day is overcast, windy and cold. It is only the very edge of spring after all.

The upper elbow trenches C and D are more exposed than the lower trenches A & B.. cut into the soles of his feet. At tea break, a return to the car to put on additional layers and a woolly hat.

The turf has been lifted and immediately the 2m long and 0.6m wide trench has divided itself into three. The upper slope layers are a deep loamy orange brown but beyond the half metre wide chalk figure line, the soils are silty and light grey. This is the effect of the chalk leaching from the line as the rain hits it and drains away.

The 2019 chalking is lifted, containing its distinctive flakes of black flint, below that is the 2008 deposit, a similar 3cm deep. I remember that one ..but there is another compacted chalk surface underneath. Is this the millennium chalking? This one is off line and slightly upslope from the other two.

Looking from the left elbow to the left foot after excavating the 2019 and 2008 chalk. We need to press on and reach the 20th century.

Did nobody take their old chalk away? Too much trouble I suppose. It seems that we are unravelling a layer cake of deposits. How deep would it go?

I walked around the trenches to see what Nancy, Carol and Pete were finding. Much the same pattern.

The ground was damp and working on the downslope was hard as we found ourselves sliding away from the trench.

We had to find room to stack the spoil from the excavations and separate the chalk from the soil so that we could reconstruct the chalk line and turf and leave the Giant much as we found him. We placed sheeting on the only level area, which was the chalk line, and balanced our soil on that.

Members of the Cerne Historical Society came to visit us and told us stories of the place. Apparently, when Lord Digby was a boy in the 1930s, he could run around the lines of the Giant because they were over 2 feet deep. He owned the Minterne Magna Estate which included most the land around the Giant.

The National Trust only owns a coffin shaped piece of grass that outlines the figure. There used to be a fence and in certain lights its location can still be seen as a slight earthwork.

Gordon lent me a file of historical documents and newspaper cuttings about the Giant. A list of 16th and 17th century references made Cerne Abbas seem a rather shady place linked to all sorts of ceremonies and goings on.

I took them home to read, wondering how deep the Giant was beneath the turf and what new discoveries awaited us.

2 thoughts on “Cerne 4: Below the Turf

    • No the Trendle has never been dated. Some people think that it could be the site of a Romano-Celtic temple like that within Maiden Castle or beside Badbury Rings but the theory needs to be tested by geophysical survey and then perhaps by archaeological excavation if scheduled monument consent is given by Historic England.

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