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

Oliver Gillie
Saturday 21 May 1994 00:02 BST

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)

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