Cerne Abbas giant may have held severed head: Oliver Gillie reports on parts of an ancient chalk figure that other archaeologists have been unable to reach

THE CERNE ABBAS giant, a naked relic of ancient British heritage, may once have worn a cloak over his shoulder and carried a severed head in his left hand. New studies of the soil around the giant have found disturbances which suggest that the figure has changed considerably since it was cut into the chalk of a Dorset hillside about 2,000 years ago.

Rodney Castleden, an independent archaeologist who is head of humanities at Roedean School, near Brighton, has spent two years studying the figure. With the help of the physics teacher, Michael Ertl, he built an electrical apparatus similar to that used by the police to search for bodies.

'The apparatus measures electrical resistance of the soil. A high resistance shows that the soil has been disturbed,' Mr Castleden said. 'The readings have been consistent from year to year and show a lot of disturbance under the giant's left arm. The lines I have found could represent a cloak or animal skin which was a common feature of figures that have survived from this period.'

It is known from Roman sources that the ancient Britons generally went into battle naked. This is probably because they normally wore only a blanket, carried over the shoulder like the Scots' plaid, and this would encumber them in battle.

Evidence of soil disturbance suggests that the figure may have had additional features which have been lost. A small knoll, some 40cms high, under the left hand could once have been a representation of a severed head, Mr Castleden believes.

'A severed head would fit with an Iron Age god, a guardian of the tribe returning from battle with the head of an enemy. The figure is in the centre of territory once occupied by a tribe called the Durotriges, an area which is roughly equivalent to present day Dorset. There is an ancient holy well near by. The Celts were keen on sacred springs and so it is an obvious place to create an image of a guardian God,' he said.

There are many examples from the Romano-British period of naked warriors carrying a club and a severed head, including a coin minted in the days of King Cymbeline.

Mr Castleden's studies have not only raised new questions about the giant, they have also settled some old controversies. During Victorian times the giant's penis became discreetly veiled by the natural growth of shrubbery. Scholars believe that when the penis was subsequently re-excavated it was extended by some two and a half metres. This has now been confirmed.

'Originally the giant had a navel but it became incorporated into the phallus when the figure was recut. I have made a trial run down the phallus and obtained electrical measurements indicating a join,' Mr Castleden said. 'The phallus is probably not part of a fertility cult as some scholars have suggested. Figures were often depicted in this period with an erect phallus and it was probably seen more as a sign indicating good luck or prosperity.'

According to another theory the giant was accompanied by a Scotch terrier running beneath the club arm. However Mr Castleden has found no soil disturbance and concludes that the terrier never existed. But there are some signs of disturbance around the head which could be the remains of a helmet or of horns, a common feature of contemporary warrior figures.

Mr Castleden is meeting with the National Trust, which owns the site, and the county archaeologist in August to consider whether they might undertake a small excavation of the site. The trust will then have to consider the delicate question of whether to restore the penis to its proper length and whether or not to cut back the turf to reveal the cloak and any other items that are confirmed by excavation.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own