Dating the Cerne Giant Results!

You may remember that back in March last year, as the shroud of Covid began to settle down over Britain….a small group of us spent the last week before ‘lockdown’ cutting trenches into the elbows and feet of the Cerne Abbas Giant.

He lies on a steep hillside in the middle of Dorset.

We wanted to take soil samples from the deepest levels. Trenches were chosen where the chalk and soil had been rain-washed downslope to settle into horizontal lines, those parts of the chalk figure that followed the contours of the hill and checked the flow of material down his legs and arms.

That’s why we chose the soles of his feet and the upper lines of his elbows.

The depths of the deposits were unexpected. Though we knew the tradition that he was rechalked or scoured every 25 years or so..we imagined the old chalk was taken away and replaced with new. That was hard work it seems, and as soil kept building up behind the old chalkings.. the workmen generally left most of the old stuff and heaped another load on top.

The left elbow trench D after excavation

The last three or four have been carried out by NT staff and volunteers but some of the ones before that were on quite an industrial scale. You may remember the upper and lower chunky chalk…well the OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dates are back…

A section drawing through trench D left elbow with in red an attempt to link the stratigraphy to different documented re-chalkings. The upper chunky chalk and the wooden stakes seen in three of the trenches may be the work commissioned in 1897 by the great pioneer archaeologist and owner of the Giant at the time General Pitt-Rivers

Gloucestershire University labs were closed for quite a time and then Phil said they would be happy to do more dates for free if NT found funding for one more. Eventually 5 were provided but one failed to give a date. Insufficient quartz particles (dilithium crystals) from the sample from the silty chalk deposit…marked as 9 in the blue circle above.

Meanwhile we were able to ask Downland Partnership to fly a drone over the Giant so that we could get a good LiDAR survey of his earthworks.

Once this was processed by Keith, NT’s digital data specialist, we were able to appreciate his earthworks far more.

The processed LiDAR image of the Cerne Giant with the Trendle earthwork above him clearly outline. A rectilinear structure, probably building footings can be seen in the centre of the eartwork and top left what look like prehistoric rectilinear field boundaries approaching the enclosure. On the Giant the pronounced earthworks from soil settling on his horizontal lines can be seen on his elbows and feet as lines of yellow and his nose, recreated in 1993, glows bright yellow.

The best of the processed images has accentuated the contour differences and shows him in blue and yellow. The outline of the double bank and ditch of the Trendle is clear and the coffin shape fence line which once surrounded the NT ownership boundary of the Giant is visible.

Another interesting revelation are the blobs of material surrounding the Giant, the largest below his outstretched hand. This has been interpreted as the earthwork of a severed head, once held in a bag dangling from the outstretched hand ….however all these blobs look to me as the leftover remnants of chalk brought to the Giant over the centuries to rechalk him…and the ‘head’ is just a large leftover spoil heap.

There are traces of letters or numbers between his legs but nothing legible. Rev John Hutchins in 1774 could see them more clearly than the 21st century drone.

Look carefully at the LiDAR image. It looks like the Giants belt was once continuous and he may once have worn trousers. His most prominent feature may be an addition. Certainly his navel was absorbed by it in 1908.

Looking at the centre of the Giant the lines of his ribs and belt are clearly visible. The yellow line that runs along the bottom of the dark line of the belt is where sediment has settled against the horizontal groove caused by its cutting. The yellow line is faint but continuous. Could it be that the Cerne Giant wasn’t rude at all when first created? He has perhaps had a makeover in later centuries.

So….and now for the OSL dates… how old is he? Well you will have to wait until Tuesday night as that’s when the press release comes out…. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Dating the Cerne Giant Results!

  1. What time Tuesday? I’m not going to get any sleep until I know! The depth of the chalk outline is really surprising!

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