Eleanor and Poppy joined us and together in a line we cleaned back onto the chalk in our large trench.
Tomorrow afternoon the photogrammetric surveyors will come and the trench needs to be ready for final recording.
The last part is very rooty as there is a fir tree beside the trench.
Sarah began to half section one of the pits.
In Rob and Carol’s trench, the prehistoric ditch in front of Max Gate front door is deep and looks like it is one of the Neolithic enclosure pits. We decided to make it longer and broader to enable us to see more of it. Several more flints in the filling but no bone or charcoal yet large enough for a C14 date.
In the evening a zoom talk with Wessex Museums. David in Devizes and Harriet, Michelle and I in Thomas Hardy’s writing study. A great place to hear of Hardy’s archaeology and to talk about our latest discoveries.
Some said they would visit tomorrow…our last day on site.
I said goodbye to Louise and drove back across the heathland towards Corfe Castle. A hot day in Purbeck and three white horses blocked the narrow road where a clump of trees had given them shade.
We put the brakes on, got out and walked towards them.
A few of us had met to walk the archaeology of an apparently empty piece of landscape, jutting out as a low peninsula into Poole Harbour.
We walked the line of an early tramway towards an overgrown jetty where, in the 18th-19th centuries, thousands of tons of fine ball clay, dug from the heath, had been loaded onto barges to feed Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery industry.
We stopped by some molehills where Pam had found some medieval pottery, perhaps part of the salt production business that used to supply Corfe Castle. Certainly salt pits are shown here on Ralph Treswell’s map of 1586.
My interest that day was rather different though.
Louise had been looking into the documentation for Middlebere within the Bankes Archive held at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester. The Bankes family had owned the whole of the Corfe Castle Estate from the early 17th century until 1982 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
She had found some WWII correspondence from Frederick Otto Rhodes. Mr Rhodes had been Mr Bankes’s steward and land agent for several decades in the 20th century. At a time when tending a great estate was a lifetime’s vocation, carefully guarding the property of his employer.
From 1940-45, the war department took over large areas of the Middlebere and Studland peninsulas and Mr Rhodes had discovered that damage was being done to Mr Bankes’s White House cottages at South Middlebere.
Louise had emailed transcripts of his letters which described the stripping out of the buildings, robbed for materials to help build a searchlight battery and gun emplacement. The letters describe the military facility and the White House and the costs the war department must pay to compensate Mr Bankes.
These were new archaeological sites. They were not on the National Trust’s historic buildings sites and monuments record.
Before my visit to Purbeck, I looked at the old Ordnance Survey maps and Mr Rhodes’s letters to fix the sites on the database map.
The White House was easy to find. It had been the farmhouse for an area of heath converted to arable during agricultural improvements in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately none of my maps covered the 1940s so I could not see the site of the searchlight battery.
Mr Rhodes had made a list of actions required to restore Middlebere to its pre-war condition and the costs the government were to pay in compensation for each item on the list. This included removing the searchlight battery and associated buildings and trackways.
Not much was likely to be visible now.
Perhaps the latest air photograph on the database would give me a clue to locate the demolished military facility.
In pasture land, just north of the site of the White House, I zoomed in and saw a parch mark rectangle with two rectangular blobs within it…..’How easy was that !’ was my initial thought….but then I looked closer.
No, this looked much older than a searchlight battery. It reminded me of buildings within enclosures detected through geophysical survey on the Roman settlement at Kingston Lacy.
I zoomed out and suddenly there were lines and circles and linear boundaries everywhere.
The photographic cover of the area was taken in a dry and revealing year and suddenly this apparently empty and uninhabited landscape reeled with the evidence of an intense past palimpsest of human activity. The property boundaries, enclosures, house and outhouse foundations, stretched out for many hectares across the land either side of Corfe River..all along towards its outflow into Poole Harbour.
Earth has not any thing to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This settlement now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, kilns, workshops, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! (William Wordsworth ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ apart from the italics)
Middlebere it seems would have been a power house c. 400BC to AD400, one of the Purbeck industrial settlements… Arne, Fitzworth, Cleavel, Goathorn and Studland, the peninsulas jutting into Poole Harbour. Here boats would have arrived and taken salt, pottery, shale products, Purbeck stone and agricultural goods out to the wider world.
This took me back to 1989 when Wessex Archaeology got a glimpse of this site when an oil pipeline crossed a northern section of Middlebere. They found Neolithic and Bronze Age evidence but particularly Iron Age ditches and gullies. I remembered too those excavations at Cleavel Point where we uncovered so much Roman activity particularly Black Burnished ware kilns and cubes of different types of Purbeck stone prepared for the mosaic makers.
Back to our visit this year.. and the White House cottages were completely gone. Now an overgrown scrub woodland. A patch of bamboo marked the site of the outdoor privy. They were grown as a screen apparently.
Oliver found some chunks of brick and concrete amongst the heather, a little to the south west of the White House site. So I’ll mark the searchlight site there on the map…but I wanted to see the ancient Middlebere settlement.. so clear on the air photographs. I left them in WWII and walked about a 100 yards north of the wood and gazed out across a level sweep of grassland. Nothing to see at all.
Time for home…but what of the horses. Two agreed reluctantly to shuffle from their shade but the third gave us a stubborn hard stare. We spent some time leaning against him and coaxing… assured him he could have his cool tree back once we had driven past…eventually he sighed and shifted. To give him his due, he gave us time to run back to the cars and get past.
We were able to leave the quiet heathland behind, turn right below the castle ruin and enter the 21st century, rejoining the holiday traffic flowing back towards Wareham.
We were to meet Keith there, the Historic England Inspector. It was to review the management of the hillfort
It was positive, the conservation grazing and scrub removal now enabled the details of the earthworks to be seen. The result of a lot of hard work. After discussion, the ranger and farmer agreed the next set of actions and we descended the steep hill….back to the little car park on the road to Child Okeford.
Hod’s ranger, Michael, wanted us to look at Turnworth. I hadn’t been there for years but Simon our nature conservation advisor offered to guide me through the back-roads. Keith would come along too… together with Marie and some of the West Dorset rangers.
It was still very early spring, overcast but warm enough as we crossed the Stour, skirted the edge of the Blackmore Vale and started to rise onto the chalk again.
It had been a long morning, we parked up on a verge beside the property gate and Simon walked across and joined me in the car. The others had gone hunting for lunch in a shop somewhere.
We ate sandwiches and talked of our families and the National Trust.
Our usual combination of archaeology and nature conservation in a landscape…beside a long quiet road, lined with mature trees on the lower slope of a chalk escarpment.
Keith arrived and said that he had agreed my application and would make sure the scheduled monument consent for Cerne Abbas would be processed before the start of our excavation there on Monday.
A couple of landrovers swung onto the verge and Michael unlocked the gates. We began the ascent of Turnworth …or Ringmoor as it is sometimes called.
I’d not done my homework.
What was this landscape all about? We’d noticed the large trees along the Turnworth Road but it was clear that another avenue diverged from our lay-by and followed the path we were on. The trees were mature, gnarled and twisted and had been planted along the hollow of a wide, dry coombe. There were gaps… and a couple of large trees had recently fallen.
The fallen tree once part of an avenue shown on the 1791 map.
So this place was more than common sheep pasture… at some time it had been included in a designed landscape… though why this avenue had been planted was hard to tell. It seemed to go nowhere.
We stood beside the fallen giant tree, its root plate now vertical.
‘How old is this’ I asked Simon.
‘Its been here well over 200 years’
We walked round to see the tangle of roots. Nothing clearly archaeological in the debris. Large nodules of flint in clayey brown earth.
‘I wonder why these trees were planted here?’
‘The site of Turnworth House lies over the ridge’ said Michael ‘huge place, burnt down in the 1940s, there’s just a bungalow there now’
We followed the trees for a while and looked across the pasture field. This National Trust property is an island of grassland in a sea of deep ploughing. Outside this reserve, the archaeological earthworks had been levelled by arable farming long ago.
The Turnworth Estate map dated 1791 which shows the ‘Y’ shaped avenues of trees. We had lunch where the avenues join and walked up the hill along the trees to the left. Far left, the pond can be seen and below a dark mark is the now ruined cottage. The circle, left of centre, is presumably the Iron Age farmstead enclosure.
Turnworth was Tornworde in 1086, a manor held by Alfred of Spain (I looked it up when I got home). Alfred’s a Saxon name.. how did he survive as a landholder in the new Norman regime… and why of Spain.. curious
This pasture field had not been ploughed in the last few hundred years and still had medieval strip lynchets carved into the steeper slopes. A place of community farming within its strip field system… until the lord of Turnworth decided to include it in his wider parkland…complete with tree-lined carriage drive.
A break of slope, marking a medieval strip lynchet terraced into the slope.
I’ve just made that up. Definitely tree-lined but was it a carriage drive? Nice idea but no clear evidence. The 1791 enclosure map shows the trees clearly. Already well grown by then.
We turned away from the medieval, left the re-wilded avenue behind and climbed steeper up the ridge to see the main attraction.
This is the bit that even the medieval cultivators set aside. Sheep pasture long before the Saxon open field system was established.
A high down-top with wide views out across the lowland of the Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s ‘Vale of Little Dairies’.
As we crested the slope, we found ourselves in an area of short grassland dotted with occasional trees and bushes. Emerging from this were distinct banks enclosing rectilinear plots of land. We entered an old trackway, defined by two parallel banks, that led us along a curving path into an oval enclosure with two level areas created…for round houses.
We had entered an Iron Age world. A rare survival. We were standing in a homestead where a farming family once lived some 2000 years ago. It was surrounded by their small square fields linked by trackways. The sort of fragile ancient earthworks that have usually been ploughed flat, sacrificed to the demands of modern agriculture.
Aerial photograph showing the prehistoric field system preserved on Turnworth Down. The oval Iron Age farmstead enclosure can be seen top left, With the trackway on its left side.
Who knows when this land was first cultivated but the farmstead on Turnworth Down probably continued to be used without much change throughout the Romano-British period. It has never been excavated so dating is hazy….but definitely old, very old.. and precious. A scheduled monument of course, as Keith reminded us.
This place had not been completely ignored by people in the intervening years. There were pits, deep pits. They are shown on the 1880s Ordnance Survey map as ‘disused gravel pits’…though mainly dug for extracting flints for 18th and 19th century road hardcore or for local buildings and walls.
One of the deep disused 18th-19th century quarry pits.
Then we came across a short long mound on the hill top. This could be a ‘pillow mound’. Was this place used as rabbit warren at some time? These high out of the way places were often used to farm rabbits with pillow mounds built to house them.
In the highest corner of the property, Michael led us to a pond beside a ruined cottage. Perhaps this building was once a keeper or stockman’s house …remote beside its watering hole.
Fifty years or so ago it became too inconvenient a place to live.. or perhaps there was insufficient cash or inclination to repair it.
The silted pond and become a wildlife reserve. The natural and historic environments, mutually beneficial and blended in the landscape.
We discussed future management needs, made a plan and took a new route back down the hill.
The terraced boundaries of the prehistoric field system drifted under the mature woodland of the lower slopes. We were soon surrounded by moss and fern covered ancient trees. Craggy outstretched branches, open grown, demonstrating that they had once matured in managed open parkland.
In single file, we meandered deeper into the trees. A visit like many before, though it felt like a conclusion. Looking back, there seemed to be something…etherial, enigmatic…a line of figures disappearing into a fading light.
One of Turnworth’s open grown parkland treescovered in fern and moss.
I have tried to find out more about Turnworth. The names of the owners of parish and park. The church largely rebuilt in the 19th century, the mansion house gone in the fire and its historical records perhaps gone too. All those hidden past lives in this small pocket of Dorset.
I can list the owners back to the 18th century …but not much more…The documents show that the great house was once a wealthy, thriving place. In 1861 mum and dad, 12 children, a governess and 13 servants all lived there… all named in the census.
Though, at the top of Turnworth Down, the names of the windswept occupants of the ancient farmstead will remain a mystery, alongside the hopes and dreams of Domesday’s Alfred of Spain.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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)
Marketing and Communication asked me to meet a reporter early one morning in June. It was about the National Trust’s decision to rebuild the Giant’s nose.
I arrived in the car park just as another vehicle pulled in and a woman got out. She introduced herself and talked about the radio interview to take place on the Giant.
She explained that it needed to be very early to cut out the sound of cars on the road and the noises of the village waking up. I showed the way and we chatted as we ascended the hill.
We climbed over the stile and stood just below the Giant’s feet. I was quite new to the Giant… and media. I honestly thought that the news angle was about his new nose (all those boring discussions on whether or not it was the right thing to do). She was very engaging and the interview started to go off message “was there anything else that the National Trust might want to restore?” she asked innocently.
“Didn’t he once have a navel ? “
“Yes that is true, he is rather larger now than he used to be, it sort of got absorbed some time between 1897 and 1924” I said “we could restore him but it would be quite a delicate operation”
She smiled and put her recorder away “Is it true” she said “that he is still seen as a fertility god; that couples actually make love on him.”
” well, yes… so I’ve been told ”
That’s the problem with media and the Giant. His asset is rather …obvious.
And that was 27 years ago and now it is a cold March day in trench D at the elbow of his outstretched arm. I have reached the chunky chalk layer 0.5m down, prising out lumps of chalk with the point of my trowel trying to keep my section straight and vertical.
A huge block of chalk juts out of the section and I work round it digging down until it peels off onto a level layer. Another crust, another older time of re-chalking.
Was this the one commissioned by the pioneer archaeologist General Pitt-Rivers in 1886 or perhaps Lord Rivers in 1868.
This layer was thin… it caved in and my trowel sank into a soft silty chalk. How many chalks were there?
We were running out of time and we were nowhere near the bottom. How could a steep chalk hillside have so much depth to it. The OSL and soil scientists were arriving on Friday and we needed to be ready for them.
Let us roll our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball And tear our pleasures with rough strife Through the iron gates of life: Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, we can make it run.