The Cerne Giant is one of the best known hill figures of Southern England. Its date however is controversial (see CA 148). Some say that it is Roman, afigure of Hercules with his club. Others say it is Celtic, afigure of the Iron Age. However there is also a strong body of opinion that it is a postmedievalfolly: there is no referenceto it all at in the documents until the 17th century, even though it lies within sight of the welldocumented medieval Abbey of Cerne. In an attempt to throw more light on this problem, Rodney Castleden, who teachesgeography at Roedean, has been carrying out some geophysical prospecting, with surprising results.
Ibegan researching the Cerne Giant for a number of reasons
1) Firstly, I wanted to test a nondestructive research method that I could use to illuminate the past history of hill figures generally, and the Long Man of Wilmington in particular, a long-standing and continuing research interest of mine;
2) To reduce the uncertainty surrounding the date of origin of the Cerne Giant, especially since there has been a recent lobby in favour of a seventeenth century date;
3) To aid future management strategies, the National Trust needs to know whether the Cerne Giant is a post-medieval joke, a prehistoric icon, or a palimpsest rendered meaningless by continual alteration.
4) I also felt that there was an 'ethical'
sense that visitors have a right to know what they are looking at. The prevailing position of the heritage industry appears to be that it doesn't matter - post-modernism gone mad!
I began with a thorough review of the literature on the Cerne Giant. A Roman
Hercules emerged as the consensus explanation, even though Stuart Piggott, who proposed it in the 1930s, seemed to lose faith in it. However if the Giant is Hercules, there are anomalies that require further explanation. Hercules is, I believe, never shown with an erection; conversely, he is usually shown carrying a lionskin.
The second stage was to design and build a resistivity meter that would give a wellfocused image and the fineness of detail needed, given the prevailing soil depth of 1012cm. A limitation to the area covered was the acute physical discomfort produced by using a short-handled device on a 23-degree slope; it was nevertheless possible to cover a 9-metre square in a morning. The surveys were done between 1989 and 1995, and processed using SURFER software.
The first campaign concentrated on the area below the extended left arm. In particular there is a low knoll below the left hand:
was this perhaps once part of the hill figure?
The survey results can only be summarized. There was no sign of the dog that had been suggested below the club handle, nor evidence that the Giant ever had horns,
ruling out an identification of the Giant with the Celtic god Cernunnos. However we did find two possible lines of resistivity lows snaking smoothly down from the left armpit to mid-thigh level, then back up to the left
The Cerne Giant as he was 2000 years ago?
This reconstruction drawing by Rodney Castleden shows the results of his researches, with a cloak and a human head -not visible on the ground today hanging down from the left arm
CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 156