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)

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.