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Dating an icon

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Giant mystery solved.

The Cerne Abbas Giant from Dorset, southern England, famed for his phallus and wavy club, was formed from trenches dug into a hillside, then filled with white chalk. A prominent landmark to be sure, but when was it created – and why?

The earliest mentions of the Giant date from just over 300 years ago, with the first-known record (1694) coming from the records of Cerne Abbas church. Interestingly, the conspicuous figure does not appear in earlier records. For example, it is absent from a 1617 survey by John Norden, the meticulous antiquarian and cartographer. For generations, it was assumed that the figure was created during the 1600s, despite claims that it was the work of the Romans.

Enter the archaeologists in 2020, who excavated portions of the Giant. They dug into the soles of his feet and his elbows, to acquire grains of quartz from the chalk and neighboring soil. They then used optically stimulated luminescence dating to establish when the quartz was last exposed to sunlight. The oldest chalk dated to between AD 650 and 1310, the year 980 falling in the middle of the chronological bracket. They also dated the soil, which dated to between AD 799 and 1100. Most likely, the Cerne Abbas Giant dates to the 10th century. But why the long gap before historical mentions? Perhaps the figure was overgrown and neglected for centuries.

The plot thickens when we learn that a Benedictine Abbey was founded in Cerne Abbas during the late 10th century. Perhaps, speculates archaeologist Mike Allen, the Giant was created in response, conceivably an act of resistance by the local people. While we cannot be sure this was really why it was created, the date of this icon of British archaeology now seems secure.

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