Britain’s Naked Cerne Abbas Giant Chalk Figure Might Not Be So Ancient After All

The Cerne Abbas chalk giant regularly gets re-chalked thanks to the elements wearing him away. Here he is newly chalked in September in 2019. National Trust

The Cerne Abbas Giant – the club-wielding giant naked man etched into an English hillside – is perhaps not as old as many assumed. Despite his caveman-like appearance, this guy is unlikely to be prehistoric and was most likely created during the late Middle Ages at the absolute earliest.

The Cerne Abbas Giant can be found on a chalk hillside in Dorset, in southern England. Standing 55 meters (180 feet) tall, it consists of shallow trenches crafted into the shape of a man armed with a club and a 10.5-meter-long (35 feet) erect penis.

The earliest documentation of the naked giant dates to the late 17th century, although there’s been much debate surrounding when exactly it was carved. According to archaeologists Martin Papworth and Mike Allen, writing in Current Archaeology, they found a collection of tiny snail shells at the site that shows the artwork could not have been created any earlier than medieval times. The snail species, known as the vineyard snail (Cernuella virgata), first arrived in Britain during the 13th and 14th centuries through trade with mainland Europe. 

“There are 118 species of snails in Britain and many of them are habitat-specific, so their preserved shells can help us establish what a landscape was like at a certain time, and to track changes in land use over time,” Papworth, a senior archaeologist at the National Trust, said in a statement in March before their project was completed.

The UK’s National Trust, the authority who owns the artwork, is also hoping to delve further into this question and determine how old this mysterious hillside chalk figure is with its own project.

No one is quite sure who this well-endowed giant is supposed to represent. Local folklore has long held that the man is a symbol of fertility, perhaps linked to older pagan beliefs. Many have also suggested it might be an Anglo-Saxon deity, while others have pondered whether it depicts the Greco-Roman hero Hercules.

Some even say he was created by a 17th century Lord to mock Oliver Cromwell, the notorious English statesman who was sometimes sarcastically referred to as "England's Hercules" by his enemies, with the club representing his harsh authoritarian rule and the penis mocking his puritanical views. 

This mystery remains as unclear as ever, although it’s hoped a more solid dating on the artwork could help narrow down some ideas about who carved the giant and who it is meant to represent.

In recent months, the giant has received a makeover. During the Covid-19 pandemic in April, residents in Cerne Abbas noticed that someone had added a facemask to the giant. The National Trust wasn’t best pleased with the unauthorized modification, saying it risked damage to the fragile site, although the move was said to have helped many of the locals' lockdown blues. 

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