Anyone today drawing a oversized sketch of a bald giant with a 30ft male reproductive organ prominently on display would probably get themselves put away. Yet at some point in history (or should that be prehistory?) a community of somebodies, in the deepest part of rural Dorset, did just that. Even by the dulled reactions of modern sensitivities, The Cerne Abbas Giant is a striking piece of in-your-face landscape art - a colossal chalk cartoon.
Peter Knight, who lived in Dorset for many years, felt drawn back from his current abode in Wiltshire to gather together everything we know, and can reasonably deduce, about this enigmatic British icon.
As with any archeological research, Peter started with the historical accounts, which imply that the figure is relatively modern - perhaps in some way connected with the Civil War. In fact, evidence for its existence in the Dorset countryside only appears in the written records from around 1694. However, as Peter pointed out, Avebury Stone Circle (the largest in Europe, and at least 5,000 years old) only appears in those written records from around 1649. An absence from the annals is clearly not the same as saying that a feature did not exist!
Both the Abbey, which was founded at Cerne right beneath the prominent white giant, and also the nearby parish church of St Mary, both paid for the figure to be re-chalked at different times. This indicates that it is pre-Christian in origin - as that it presented no challenge to the developing religious establishment there. Indeed, the Abbey’s early foundation, and its evangelical aims, would have been greatly enhanced by the arrival of groups of Pagans coming to visit their designated divinity. These would have been just the kind of people that the New Religion was trying to engage with and to convert.
However, the absence of any earlier documented reference is a bit surpising, especially given the exaggerated format of the figure itself. So, Peter then looked to other similar depictions of giants - and found quite a few that appeared to have at least some of the same attributes. This has led him to postulate that the figure was intended to represent the hero Hercules (or at least his alter ego in the various contemporary pantheons). It might also have been why the Romans did not have this bold territorial totem erased from view, as they could have seen him as a rude depiction one of their own deities.
The seminal earth energy dowser, Guy Underwood, famously studied the site back in the 1950s. Some of the details of his findings later appeared in The Pattern of the Past - a book published posthumously in the 1970s. As a frontiersman of his time, Underwood came to the (then surprising) conclusion that the giant had been etched to bring to life the underlying earth energy lines - and with a few enhancements to reflect a talisman of the culture of the age. Guy’s views were so far ahead of their time that he was regarded as little short of delusional - which was sad, as he was probably much closer to the truth than perhaps even he had realised. Only in recent years have Billy Gawn and Maria Wheatley started to rehabilitate GW’s work. Today, it is becoming less outrageous to say that underlying energy patterns can form a template for what might physically appear on the ground above them.
Underwood was too early to benefit from the insight of Hamish Miller and others that the dowser can affect, and be affected by, those underlying energy patterns. Had he been able to appreciate this, he might have made an even greater leap of understanding - that ancient people seem to have taken the energy patterns embedded in the eternal landscape, and interpreted them, in an anthropomorphic way, into recognisable figures such as the Cerne Man.
So far, so good, but Peter still didn’t have much of a clue as to just how old the giant actually is. Carbon dating is of little help. However, the presence of pottery from the Romano-British period at the similar site of the Long Man at Wilmington in Sussex, found only half way down one of the surrounding excavation ditches, did imply that at least some retouching of these enormous artworks had occurred at quite an early date.
Apart from doing a great job in assembling the various references to the giant into one volume, Peter Knight’s contribution to the debate has been to pinpoint a possible date for the reason behind the creation of the figure. It requires the use of the emerging discipline of archaeo-astronomy (determining where various constellation of stars were in the heavens, seen from any location, at any point in history). Until quite recently this was a laborious process, fraught with the danger of making unsubstantiated assumptions and typographical errors. Today, it is disarmingly simple and deadly accurate!
A number of commercial ‘apps’ (Peter uses Skymap) will allow you to tap co-ordinates into a domestic computer and, hey presto, you can see, and even interact with, the night sky as it would have appeared at the year dot wherever you want to stand on Planet Earth. I feel you would have to be an extreme technophobe not to find that academic feat impressive. Applying this newfound astronomical archive to the position of our phallic friend, the landscape giant at Cerne Abbas, shows him to be located exactly below the rising constellations of one or other of the two striding celestial giants (Hercules or Orion) on the date of each summer and winter solstice, between 500BC and 500AD.
Additional work by Peter, using a related app, which calculates once and future eclipses, also shows a total solar eclipse to have taken place over the Cerne Valley on 21st June AD19. This would have been an extremely rare and portentous event, especially for a society pre-dating a modern understanding of the physical cosmos - and certainly one likely to provoke the protective invocation of their solar hero. A time, a place, a reason - QED.
Peter’s book sales implied that many of those attending found this a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation. Thanks, as ever, to all those who helped to make the event possible.