The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 60 meter long hill figure made of chalk in Dorset, England. It was first documented in the 17th century but may date as early as 700-1000 A.D.

February 27, 2024

The Mysterious Origins of the Cerne Abbas Giant | The New Yorker

The sun was still low in the sky on the spring morning last year when Martin Papworth, an archeologist for the National Trust, arrived in the village of Cerne Abbas. Setting off along a wooded path at the foot of Giant Hill, he carried in each hand a bucket loaded with excavation tools. Cerne Abbas, in a picturesque valley in Dorset, about three hours southwest of London, is an ancient settlement. At one end of the village, beneath a meadow abutting a burial ground, lie the foundations of what was, a thousand years ago, a thriving abbey. Close by is a spring-fed well named for St. Augustine, a monk who was sent by Rome in the sixth century to convert Britain to Christianity, and who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. According to legend, he caused the spring to stream forth by striking the ground with his staff. Atop Giant Hill lies an earthwork, possibly dating from the Iron Age: a rectangular enclosure, known as the Trendle, that may have been a temple or a burial mound. The object of Papworth’s interest was another mysterious man-made part of the landscape: the Cerne Giant, an enormous figure of a naked, armed man, carved into the chalk of the hillside.

The Cerne Giant is so imposing that he is best viewed from the opposite crest of the valley, or from the air. He is a hundred and eighty feet tall, about as high as a twenty-story apartment building. Held aloft in his right hand is a large, knobby club; his left arm stretches across the slope. Drawn in an outline formed by trenches packed with chalk, he has primitive but expressive facial features, with a line for a mouth and circles for eyes. His raised eyebrows were perhaps intended to indicate ferocity, but they might equally be taken for a look of confusion. His torso is well defined, with lines for ribs and circles for nipples; a line across his waist has been understood to represent a belt. Most well defined of all is his penis, which is erect, and measures twenty-six feet in length. Were the giant not protectively fenced off, a visitor could comfortably lie down within the member and take in the idyllic vista beyond.

Cerne Abbas Giant—Dorset's enormous chalk figure—was Saxon, new study finds

Papworth was not, on this occasion, concerned with the giant’s most notable physical feature. He and a small team of colleagues planned to excavate the crooks of the figure’s elbows and the soles of his feet. Because of rainwater runoff on the steep hillside over the centuries, these areas have built up a dense layer of chalk mixed with silt and spoil, like the ingrained grime of a returnee from sleepaway camp. For as long as records have existed on the giant, he has been kept intact by the regular clearing away of weeds from the chalk trenches. Over the past century, at least, the figure has been even more clearly delineated by the introduction, every few decades, of fresh chalk carted in from elsewhere. Papworth’s goal was to dig through the layers of chalk and silt until he reached the level at which the soil had never been disturbed. He hoped that an analysis of soil samples recovered from those depths would date the giant’s creation, helping to solve the puzzle that the figure, with his raised brows and penis, has long presented: who inscribed such a ribald image on a hillside, and why did they do it?

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a 60 meter long hill figure made of chalk in Dorset, England. It was first documented in the 17th century but may date as early as 700-1000

Hill figures, or geoglyphs, are scattered across southern England, where chalk downs offer ready-made canvases to landscape artists. Some geoglyphs are relatively recent, such as the Osmington White Horse, a representation of King George III on horseback, which was etched into a coastal hillside about ten miles south of the Cerne Giant in 1808, to celebrate the monarch’s patronage of the seaside town of Weymouth. (Local lore has it that the image—which shows the king riding out of town, rather than into it—so offended him that he never returned.) Other hill figures are much older. The Uffington White Horse, an abstracted, elongated figure in Oxfordshire, looks as if it might have been drawn by Matisse but dates from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. Geoglyphs can have a clear significance, such as the Fovant Badges, a sequence of regimental insignia cut into a Wiltshire hillside during the First World War by soldiers training for the trenches. The meaning of other hill figures, such as the Long Man of Wilmington, in East Sussex, is more obscure. At two hundred and thirty-five feet, the Long Man is even taller than the Cerne Giant, and holds two staffs in his hands, like walking poles. The figure was long presumed to be ancient, but until recent decades no technologies existed for dating such an earthwork. Now they do, and analysis of the chalk on the hillside has revealed that the image was created in the mid-sixteenth century, making it a perplexing early-modern gesture rather than, say, a Romano-British cult figure or an Anglo-Saxon warrior.

The Cerne Giant has also been subjected to broad speculation about his age. “It is supposed to be above a thousand years standing,” an anonymous correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote in 1764. The text was accompanied by an illustration—the earliest published drawing of the giant, including measurements—which indicates that in the mid-eighteenth century the giant had the additional physical feature of a ring-shaped belly button. It was only when this was—perhaps accidentally—merged with the erect penis directly below it, in the early twentieth century, that the giant acquired the prominent apparatus for which he is known today. “We need to make due allowance for scale,” Rodney Castleden, one scholar of the giant, has written, calculating that the penis as it currently stands is equivalent to nine inches for an adult male of average height—“a prodigious though not unknown length.” The giant’s unmodified member would, at human scale, measure “a perfectly normal” six inches.

Local folklore has long held that infertility might be cured by sitting on—or, for good measure, copulating upon—the giant’s penis. In the nineteen-eighties, the sixth Marquess of Bath, the late Henry Frederick Thynne, told a reporter that when he and his second wife, the former Virginia Tennant, were having trouble conceiving a child, they paid the giant a visit. “We were very much in the dark about what he could do,” Lord Bath recalled. “I explained the problem and sat on him.” A daughter was born about ten months later. She was christened Silvy Cerne Thynne, and the name of G. Cerne was given as godfather.

Among the first to propose that the giant had ancient origins was an antiquarian named William Stukeley, who, in 1764, noted that the inhabitants of Cerne Abbas “pretended to know nothing more of it than a traditionary account among them of its being a deity of the ancient Britons.” He said that locals then called the giant Helis. As Stukeley saw it, the figure’s raised club suggested that it was a representation of Hercules, and therefore dated from the era of Roman occupation of Britain, which began in 43 A.D. Other antiquarians were more skeptical of the giant’s religious or mythic significance. In 1797, a scholar named Dr. Maton granted that the figure was ancient but dismissed it as schoolboy humor predating the schoolroom—“the amusement of idle people, and cut with little meaning.”

By the twentieth century, scholars were venturing more grounded theories to account for the giant’s existence. In the nineteen-twenties, Sir Flinders Petrie, an archeologist, argued that the figure’s proximity to nearby earthworks suggested that it was from the Bronze Age, which extended approximately from 2300 to 800 B.C. Stuart Piggott, another archeologist, linked the name Helis with that of an obscure pagan figure, Helith, who, according to a thirteenth-century chronicler, Walter of Coventry, was once worshipped in the Cerne area. (Few contemporary writers have championed this notion.) In the nineteen-seventies, a geophysical survey of the hillside led to speculation that a lion skin had once dangled from the giant’s left arm, which would explain the figure’s somewhat ungainly pose, and might buttress the Herculean identification. Two decades later, Castleden, the historian, carried out further geophysical investigations, which convinced him that it was a cloak, rather than a lion skin, that once swung beneath the left arm, “as if the Giant is running or because he is waving his arm like a matador.”

After exploring some bumps on the hillside, Castleden claimed to have made an even more sensational discovery: the outline of a face surrounded by a mop of hair, which might be, he speculated, “the lime-encrusted dreadlocks of a Celtic warrior decapitated in battle.” The evidence included by Castleden in his 1996 study, “The Cerne Giant,” was inconclusive: a belief that the giant is holding a severed head may be a prerequisite for perceiving one in the indistinct photograph included in the book. Castleden acknowledged that people doing detective work on the giant might be seduced by evidence that others couldn’t see. He declared himself unable to back up a suggestion, made by another author, that lower down the slope lie the traces of a gigantic terrier-like dog. Staring at Giant Hill could feel like staring at clouds.

The notion that the figure was ancient prevailed in popular discourse for decades, assisted by the giant’s incorporation into folksy rituals. Since the nineteen-sixties, May Day has been marked in Cerne Abbas by a team of Morris dancers in traditional English costumes, with bell pads on their shins, ascending the hill before dawn to perform high-stepping, handkerchief-waving choreography within the bounds of the Trendle. The event used to draw only a few committed onlookers, but in recent years as many as a hundred villagers have climbed up to watch the sun rise and the Morris men dance while draining a barrel of beer that has been hauled up the hillside. This is followed by a full English breakfast, and more beer, at one of the local pubs. Four years ago, Jane Still, the wife of the vicar of St. Mary’s Church, which was established in Cerne Abbas in the fourteenth century, launched the annual Cerne Giant Festival, to celebrate the figure as a genius loci—a protective spirit who symbolizes the interaction of humanity with the landscape. Still, a biology teacher, told me that she was persuaded by the theory laid out in the 2013 book “The Cerne Giant: Landscape, Gods and the Stargate,” by the Wiltshire author Peter Knight: that the giant had been created in the Iron Age, during which time he had aligned with the geometry of the Orion constellation. Last Halloween, another ritual was born, when villagers paraded through the town by candlelight, past the church and the Royal Oak pub, bearing oversized willow-and-tissue-paper puppets made under the direction of Sasha Constable, an artist who lives in the village, and with the help of Jig Cochrane, a puppet master. A representation of the giant was fifteen feet tall and featured a bobbing penis.

An equally rich counter-narrative contends that the giant is younger than the Royal Oak pub, which is thought to have been built in the sixteenth century, with stones repurposed from the abbey after it was demolished during the reign of Henry VIII. The fact that a powerful and wealthy monastery once lay at the foot of the hill is often marshalled as evidence against the idea that the giant dates back that far. Would the monks at the abbey—who included Ælfric the Grammarian, the preëminent Anglo-Saxon scholar and writer of the late tenth century—have tolerated the inescapable representation of such a carnal, and likely heathen, figure? (Ælfric’s works include the “Colloquy,” a Latin instructional text that consists of an imaginary dialogue about professions then characterizing village life: plowing, hunting, herding, and the like. No mention is made of a giant.)

The earliest documented reference to the figure is from 1694, when the ledger book of the parish churchwardens notes that three shillings was expended “for repaireing of ye Giant.” The giant had been around long enough to need fixing up—at least a decade or two, but not necessarily any longer, given how quickly his edges can be blurred by weeds and weather. Yet absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: the first surviving reference to Stonehenge, in a work called “Historia Anglorum,” by Henry of Huntingdon, was recorded around 1130, but no reputable scholar would suggest that the stone circle wasn’t erected until the twelfth century. Indeed, some have argued that the lack of any earlier reference to the Cerne Giant could support his longevity: he might have been so familiar a presence as to be not worth mentioning. It is surprising, however, that the handful of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travellers who described the area’s historical and architectural features failed to mention an enormous ithyphallic figure carved into a hillside.

The suggestion that the giant was created in the seventeenth century has a lengthy provenance of its own. John Hutchins, whose work “The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset” was published in the seventeen-seventies, reported being told by the steward of the local manor that the giant had been created at the behest of Lord Holles, whose wife had inherited the estate. Denzil Holles, who was born in 1598, was a well-heeled Member of Parliament. In the sixteen-forties, he supported the Parliamentary cause against King Charles I in the standoff that became the English Civil War, which culminated in the trial and execution of the king—and in the institution of a republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Notwithstanding Holles’s original Parliamentary leanings, he swiftly withdrew support from Cromwell, whom he regarded as excessively radical. Charles II, to whom the throne was restored after the death of Cromwell, rewarded Holles with the title of baron, in 1661.

Cromwell was sometimes depicted as Hercules. A statue at Highnam Court, a stately home in Gloucestershire, represents the long-haired Lord Protector with a club in hand, naked but for a tastefully positioned loincloth. Could Holles have ordered the creation of the giant as a political lampoon, like a seventeenth-century Banksy? In 1996, during a mock trial about this theory held at the Cerne Abbas Village Hall, the historian Joseph Bettey argued, “To appreciate that Holles was certainly capable of a grand gesture of defiance such as the creation of the Giant, it is important to appreciate his fierce, unyielding temper.” In 1629, Holles had been among several M.P.s who forcibly held the Speaker in his chair while the House passed anti-monarchist resolutions. The mock trial, a daylong event open to the public, sifted through the evidence on both sides. In a vote taken before the proceedings, seventy per cent of the audience believed the giant to be ancient; afterward, support for the giant’s antiquity dropped to fifty per cent. (Around this time, a story began circulating in Cerne Abbas of a female resident of a certain age who insisted that she could tell reporters exactly how old the giant was: “Obviously, he’s in his early twenties.”)

Last summer, Brian Edwards, a visiting research fellow at the University of the West of England, Bristol, proposed an alternative seventeenth-century origin story. In an article in Current Archaeology, Edwards argued that the giant was indeed a Hercules figure, and pointed out that the date of the giant’s first recorded renovation, in 1694, coincided with an annual celebration of King William III’s birthday and also with the anniversary of his invasion of England, in 1688, when he was the Prince of Orange. Edwards said that, of all British leaders, William III was the one most often linked with Hercules. When I spoke to Edwards not long ago, he told me that he had never been convinced by the identification of the giant with Cromwell. “Cromwell was frequently drawn and caricatured in the seventeenth century, and they are all brilliant images of him, with his wild hair,” he said. “The giant looks nothing like him. The giant has no hair.” The giant, with his small ovoid head and startled features, does not look very much like William III, either—at least so far as we can tell, though none of William’s portraits show him without his wig on.

Martin Papworth and his team spent five days on the hillside, digging four holes at different points on the giant’s outline. They carefully trowelled through layers of chalk that had been introduced, during the past century, in re-chalkings conducted roughly every twenty years. Two feet down, they found a series of wooden stakes that they presumed had been put there in 1897. In a blog post, Papworth described a birthday celebration for one of his colleagues, Nancy Grace: “She filled the glasses, lined us up along the Giant’s 8m long penis,” and, after setting the timer on a camera, “just had time to settle herself comfortably between his balls before the shutter clicked.” By the end of the third day of digging, Papworth had reached chalk bedrock, the lowest point at which there was any trace of human intervention on the hillside. He wrote, “We had gone beyond the place where history could be linked to archaeology.”

Papworth had last spent time with the giant in the nineteen-nineties, when, as a young archeologist, he was part of a team that rebuilt the giant’s nose, after an examination of the site had indicated that this organ had once been depicted in three-dimensional relief, and had since eroded. (The nose is the one feature on the giant that is not outlined: it is a grassy bump in the center of the giant’s face, resembling the kind of fuzzy protrusion one sees on a Muppet.) Around the same time, the Uffington White Horse was dated by a company called Oxford Archaeology by means of optically stimulated luminescence—a technique measuring the amount of nuclear radiation that a sample of sediment has absorbed since last being exposed to daylight. The longer a sample has been covered up, the greater the absorbed dose. For very old samples, the method cannot identify the precise year, or even decade, that the sediment last saw the light of day: rather, it yields a span of centuries. The Uffington White Horse was shown to have been created sometime between 1380 and 550 B.C. Optically stimulated luminescence, as imprecise as it can be, has a clarifying power: in the case of the horse figure, it proved that it is not a modern creation, or even a medieval one.

A plan was made to analyze the Cerne Giant using optically stimulated luminescence, but funding was lacking until 2019, when the National Trust—which has owned the land that the giant occupies since 1920—finally decided to pay for it. The results were to be published in the summer of 2020, to celebrate a hundred years of the Trust’s custodianship of the giant. Soil samples were collected for analysis on the final day of Papworth’s dig, just before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the United Kingdom’s first lockdown measures on account of the coronavirus. The study of the samples, which was to be undertaken by Phillip Toms, the leader of the Environmental Sciences Group at the University of Gloucestershire, was delayed by the closure of the university, and commemorative events were cancelled.

“Thanks for coming to talk to me, guys. It really means a lot.”

Cartoon by David Sipress


In the meantime, a separate analysis was undertaken by another member of the National Trust team, Mike Allen, a geoarcheologist who studies land-use history by sieving soil for microscopic traces of mollusks. The presence of certain mollusks in the soil can also provide information related to dating. There are about a hundred and twenty snail species in the United Kingdom, some of which have been found there for ten thousand years, ever since rising sea levels cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. But other species have been introduced much more recently—deliberately by the Romans, as food, and inadvertently in the medieval period, in straw used to pack goods shipped from the Continent. These stowaway snails—which measure only a few millimetres in diameter across their shells, and are typically found in even smaller fragments—are hard to detect, but their presence in a sample indicates that it dates from the medieval period or after. By last summer, Allen had some preliminary data suggesting that soil deposits contemporary with the giant’s creation contained these late-arriving snails.

“The indication of whether the giant was prehistoric or medieval was immediately answered,” Allen told me recently. “Clearly, with these snails, he is medieval—or later.” Allen admitted that he was disappointed by his own discovery. “I wanted him to be prehistoric,” he went on. “That kind of iconography is the type of thing we see in prehistory. There are prehistoric monuments in the landscape around him. There are Iron Age sites just above his head. And there are Bronze Age sites on the land over which he looks. We know that the prehistoric communities from the Bronze Age onward were living on the chalk downs, farming with herds of cattle and sheep. That was their home. To have them placing a marker in the landscape saying, ‘This is ours’—that would have been nice.”

About a year after Papworth climbed Giant Hill, I paid a visit to Cerne Abbas. England was still under strict lockdown: the village’s three pubs were closed, as was the church. Only the village shop was open. Canned goods were stocked alongside postcards and boxes of fudge bearing the giant’s familiar image. The village, which has a population of nine hundred, would be postcard-worthy even without the presence of its most famous resident. There are thatch-roofed houses, handsome Georgian façades, and, opposite St. Mary’s Church, a row of much photographed, half-timbered, chronically slumping cottages, which were built by the nearby abbey in the early sixteenth century.

I had arranged to meet Gordon Bishop, the chair of the Cerne Historical Society, and we strolled through the burial ground near the foot of Giant Hill. It was a pleasant, misty day, the skies softened with a skein of cloud; the grass was dewy underfoot. Bishop, a retired barrister, was skeptical that the National Trust’s investigation would prove anything definitive. Even if it appeared that most of the digging had been done in the seventeenth century, he said, that wouldn’t necessarily rule out the giant’s having been there before, especially if the figure had at some point been allowed to grass over or become thick with brambles. “Personally, I feel it’s a rather primitive figure,” he said, as we passed near where the abbey is thought to have stood. “If you were landed gentry, would you want to pay your men to make it, just to annoy Oliver Cromwell? Not likely.”