For centuries, people have wondered about the origins of the mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant chalk figure carved into a hillside in Dorset, England. New research by Oxford University scholars Helen Gittos and Tom Morcom shed light on this centuries-old mystery.

Their findings suggest the giant was originally carved as a meeting point for King Alfred’s western Saxon armies facing attacks from Vikings in the 9th century.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is one of Britain’s most visually striking landscape figures, standing over 180 feet tall. Previously, most believed it dated to prehistory or more recently. However, earlier research by Martin Papworth of the National Trust found it was carved during the Anglo-Saxon period. Still, the reason for its creation remained unknown.

Through studying medieval history and archaeology in the area, Gittos and Morcom discovered the giant was first depicted as the classical hero Hercules. As a well-known figure in the Middle Ages, Hercules would have been recognizable to the local people.

Its location on a hill spur overlooking the surrounding countryside and near important travel routes is characteristic of Saxon assembly places. With Dorset facing Viking raids, this site offered access to fresh water, local supplies, and visibility to gather western Saxon armies with Hercules serving as a backdrop.

At least by the 10th century, Cerne was controlled by the earls of the Western Provinces, key thegns, or military leaders, of the king in southwest England. The natural defenses, resources, and visibility made it well-suited to assemble Saxon forces.

In the 11th century, monks who worshipped at an abbey below the giant hill reimagined it as their patron saint, Eadwold, referring to the giant in lessons on his feast day.

Over time, the giant took on new meanings as people’s needs and beliefs changed. The monks likely wouldn’t have depicted their clothed saint originally naked, but found it useful to connect him to the pre-existing giant figure.

Even today, the giant remains an important symbol, with locals continuing to care for and reinterpret it for new generations. The research provides insight into how landscape features can take on significance shaped by the culture and events of their time.


Sources

University of Oxford | Thomas Morcom, Helen Gittos, The Cerne Giant in Its Early Medieval Context. Speculum, vol.99, no.1. doi.org/10.1086/727992


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