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.

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