Experts join forces to determine age of the Cerne Abbas Giant

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Volunteers work to repair and refresh the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset last year
Volunteers work to repair and refresh the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset last year Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

Archaeologists have launched a mission to determine the age of the mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant for the first time.

The giant hill figure of a standing nude man brandishing a giant club measures 55-metres (180ft) and overlooks the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset.

The origins and purpose of Britain's largest and perhaps best-known chalk hill figure are shrouded in mystery.

Theories range from an ancient spirituality symbol or likeness of Greco-Roman hero Hercules to a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, with the club a reference to repressive rule and the phallus a mockery of his puritanism.

Local folklore has long held it to be a fertility aid and the earliest recorded mention of the giant dates from 1694.

The giant chalk figure was gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Pitt-Rivers family. Now the charity, together with the University of Gloucestershire, is undertaking tests to establish the giant's age.

Archaeologists have excavated small trenches to enable samples of soil to be extracted from points on the giant's elbows and feet.

Over the coming weeks, Professor Phillip Toms, from the University of Gloucestershire, will attempt to date the samples using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL).

Martin Papworth, a senior archaeologist at the National Trust, said: "The OSL technique is commonly used to determine when mineral grains in the soil were last exposed to sunlight.

"It was used to discover the age of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire in the 1990s, which was found to be nearly 3,000-years-old - even more ancient than we had expected.

"We're expecting the results of the tests in July. It is likely that the tests will give us a date range, rather than a specific age, but we hope they will help us better understand, and care for, this famous landmark."

The head of the giant, being refreshed last year Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

Gordon Bishop, chairman of the Cerne Historical Society, said villagers were eagerly awaiting the results.

"Although there are some who would prefer the giant's age and origins to remain a mystery, I think the majority would like to know at least whether he is ancient or no more than a few hundred-years-old," he said.

"Whichever may be the case, he is unique."

In separate analysis, environmental archaeologist Mike Allen will analyse soil samples containing the microscopic shells of land snails to learn more about the site's past.

"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," he said.

"They should help us to discover whether the giant was created on a grazed chalk hillside, or whether people purposely cleared scrub to prepare the land for the figure."

Most of the time, the giant chalk figure is fairly low maintenance with  sheep grazing the site in spring and autumn to keep him trim, but it is seeds deposited in the sheeps’ poo that encourages weed growth within his lines. 

The weeds are sprayed by chief ranger Michael Clarke and his team but there comes a point where the top layer of chalk has to be replaced.

Last year, the giant was refreshed for the first time in 11 years. A team of volunteers, led by Mr Clarke, hammered in 17 tonnes of new chalk from Salisbury by hand to counteract weathering and keep the giant visible for miles around.