Everyone’s favorite well-endowed giant, the Cerne Abbas Giant on an English hillside (sorry, Shaq), just got endowed with something even bigger – a more accurate birthday. While it may seem obvious what someone of his ‘stature’ would wish for, let’s first find out how many candles he’ll be extinguishing.
“The science suggests he could be medieval, but intriguingly, surviving documents from Cerne Abbey don’t mention the giant. In the 16th century it’s as if the giant’s not there, and John Norden’s survey of 1617 makes no mention of him. And why would a rich and famous abbey – just a few yards away – commission, or sanction, a naked man carved in chalk on the hillside?”
National Trust, which has owned the land that the giant occupies since 1920, was as puzzled as everyone else why an abbey founded in 987 CE would create or allow the construction of the aroused Cerne Giant right next door – a conundrum compounded by the fact that the earliest known record of it was in 1694. There was some thought that the giant was much older – perhaps prehistoric – but there was no evidence to date it. In 2020, the National Trust decided to attempt to better date the Giant’s birth and brought in a team of archaeologists and allow them to dig into the chalk outline.
“This is not what was expected. Many archaeologists and historians thought he was prehistoric or post-medieval, but not medieval. Everyone was wrong, and that makes these results even more exciting.”
In a National Trust press release, geoarchaeologist Mike Allen expresses the surprise of many who assumed the Cerne Giant might be thousands of years old. Digging deep into the chalk, primarily in his elbows and his feet, the researchers analyzed the dirt down to a level where there was no evidence of chalk – this turned out to be deeper than expected because the Giant has been re-chalked many times. The chalk stopped around 700 CE, which would put the Cerne Giant’s birth in Britain’s Saxon period. That predates the founding of the abbey, which suggests the Giant might be a depiction of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith’. One purpose of the abbey was convert the local ‘pagans’ to Christianity. That would make sense … except for the question of why the abbey would be built next to the erotic god depiction. National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth presents a theory:
“I wonder whether he was created very early on, perhaps in the late Saxon period, but then became grassed over and was forgotten. But at some stage, in low sunlight, people saw that figure on the hill and decided to re-cut him again. That would explain why he doesn’t appear in the abbey records or in Tudor surveys.”
Other archeologists appear to agree with the theory and the date. Gordon Bishop, chair of the Cerne Historical Society, is happy because this finally negates the long-held belief that the Cerne Giant was created in the 17th century as an insult to Oliver Cromwell, which Bishop thought “rather demeaned the giant.” A classically subtle British insult.
Now that we know his birthday, what about his ‘endowment’ – was he born with it? Martin Papworth doesn’t think so.
“If he does date to the time of the abbey then he is more acceptable with trousers on than without.”
If the Cerne Giant was wearing trousers, we wouldn’t be writing about him, would we?