The Cerne Giant: An Antiquity on Trail by T. Darvill, K. Barker, B. Bender and R. Huttons.
Oxbow Books. 1999. 172 pages, 19 photographs, 3 maps, 32 text figures/illustrations. ISBN 1-900188-94-5

         This particular volume is the result of a one-day ‘trial’ held on the 23rd of March 1996, in the Cerne Abbas village hall, relating to a fine, ‘upstanding’ character who is to be found residing in the parish of Cerne Abbas, in the district of West Dorset’. The Cerne Giant is without doubt one of the most popular chalk figures in Britain, due in part, to his occasional appearances in advertising campaigns and TV commercials, but perhaps due largely to a particular physical attribute that has raised the figure to the status of a national landmark. This volume examines three conflicting schools of thought relating to the age of the giant: The figure was prehistoric/Romano British in date, he was medieval/Post medieval in date, or that he is simply important irrespective of his age.

         The ‘trial’ was organised as a one day public inquiry with Timothy Darvill, Barbara Bender and Ronald Hutton acting as advocates and introducing their ‘expert witnesses’ for each case, the audience was then engaged to act as the jury. The preface of the book gives a brief outline of the historical references, wide range of opinions relating to the giant, and the trial of the figure. Part one introduces the Cerne Giant and is presented in the form of a ‘preliminary briefing’ intended to set the scene for those new to the debate. This section is divided into three short chapters, summarising the background, setting, context and management of the giant. Parts two, three and four are dedicated to the presentation of the three separate ‘cases’ of the trial. Part five provides an epilogue to the enquiry in two chapters.

         Part one begins with an introduction by Jeffrey Chartrand, to the location of the giant using impressive computer generated terrain models and topographical surveys of the area. Chartrand then provides a brief history of the landscape from the ice age and brief outlines of the local geological and environmental information. Timothy Darvill continues with a study of British hill figures, examining the history of the hill figure through to newly proposed examples. He then begins an account of the documentary evidence and how little has been discovered relating to the giant before the date of 1763. This account also examines how the giant has been subjected to ‘cosmetic surgery’, having various parts of his anatomy removed and remodelled and elongated. Darvill suggests that many of the changes made to the outline of the giant have been made during relatively recent restoration, a suggestion backed by the early and recent accounts. He then moves on to discuss how antiquarians from different periods have interpreted the giant and speculated as to his identity. Here begins an excellent examination of the Giant’s possible identities and the changing attitudes to the imposing figure. Darvill’s concludes that we will never obtain answers relating to the Cerne Giant until some form of excavation is carried out. This subject is broached several times throughout the book, highlighting the conflicting attitudes relating to the figure.

         The second chapter of part one, is presents by William Keithly, Martin Papworth and David Thackray. This chapter focuses on the historical ownership of the giant, discussing alterations and how management practices have changed over the years. This chapter also highlights management strategies implemented by The National Trust, including advertising campaigns that have contributed to the upkeep of the giant; most notably those produced by Durex and Heineken which, as might be expected, exploited the giant’s famous appendage. This chapter also mentions forthcoming work to be carried out on the giant to improve our understanding of a construction date.

         Part two of this volume represents the first of the three arguments, ‘The Case for an Ancient Giant.’ This section is comprised of five papers, by expert witnesses in support the ancient giant theory. Timothy Darvill provides a short introduction to part two, under the heading ‘A Prehistoric Warrior God?’ and begins, quite rightly, by explaining that early arguments for an ancient giant were groundless and have no place in modern arguments to that effect. He then introduces a panel of experts enlisted to fight his corner. Darvill also notes that there is a need to dispense with the ‘negative evidence’ which suggests that because there are no historical accounts before the early 17th century, the giant was not there before that time. This appears to be the essence of this argument, as all of the witnesses in this section appear (quite rightly) to make similar statements. At this point Darvill introduces Paul Newman as his first expert witness.

         Newman immediately focuses on the weapon of the giant (the club of course) as an out-dated weapon even in the later prehistoric, suggesting that it is therefore even more unlikely to be of 18th century construction. Newman then proves himself to be the broad shoulders of the group being the first to tackle the subject of the famous phallus; he does this by drawing comparisons with images dating back some 2000 years or more. Timothy Darvill adds some comments to this chapter, drawing parallels with other hill figures such as the Uffington white horse. A sense of frustration may be detected within the text as all records of the giant record cleaning and restoration rather than possible dates of construction. He moves on to introduce David Miles. This chapter examines parallels drawn between the Uffington Horse and the Cerne Giant, using impressive aerial images and plans. Miles examines the methods used to excavate and date the Uffington Horse to the Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, stating that the horse was constructed at a time of changing ideologies, yet has still survived. He then argues that if the ancient horse could have survived for so long, why should the Cerne Giant be any different? Miles then examines how the giant might be associated with other monuments and features in the landscape.

         Timothy Darvill provides a brief summary to this paper, suggesting that there is clear evidence for the construction of hill figures being an established aspect of prehistoric life. Darvill then calls his next witness - Rodney Castleden. Castleden begins with an introduction to iconography and how it might be used to reveal the identity of the giant. This is well written providing understandable coverage of what can be a difficult subject to absorb. He uses modern examples of uniformed individuals to explain how such images can be applied to past iconography. Castleden describes how the giant displays a great deal of ‘encoded’ information that may indicate of his age and cultural origin. The next to be called to the stand is Bill Putnam who is the first to mention the name of the Durotriges tribe, the late prehistoric occupants of the area, and his belief that it was these people who were responsible for constructing the giant at Cerne Abbas. Putnam returns to the theory of the giant being a fertility figure or god and places great emphasis on locating the giant within a pagan profile and Iron Age landscape. Once again Darvill summarises this section and introduces John Gale who describes geophysical surveys carried out during 1996. Brief descriptions of the process and results of both magnetometer and resistivity surveys are well presented using clear plans and images. Gale provides a background of surveys carried out on the giant over the past thirty years and reasons for future ‘none-invasive’ work.

         Part three of the volume is dedicated to the case for a Medieval/Post Medieval giant and is introduced by case advocate Ronald Hutton. In his introduction, Hutton acknowledges that the giant is generally accepted as prehistoric, and that changes to such beliefs can be unpopular. In response to the previous chapter, Hutton rejects comparisons to the Uffington Horse, as the dating processes employed there have never been used to provide a date for the Cerne Giant. Hutton then introduces his first expert witness, Vivian Vale. Vale provides a short history of the village of Cerne Abbas and the involvement it has had with the giant over recent centuries. He examines documentary evidence for land ownership relating to the giant and involvement of the church in the upkeep and maintenance of the giant. Hutton calls his first witness Joseph Betty. Betty, like Hutton, suggests that the giant is likely to have been of mid 17th century construction. A barrage of evidence follows which delves into local and ecclesiastical records and even strives to identify a candidate, and his motives for constructing the figure. Hutton reiterates much of Betty’s argument and in the process contributes further information relating to the argument. He then introduces Katherine Barker.

         Barker presents an interesting chapter detailing the folklore of giants and their inclusion in biblical stories. The folklore tales of the region are indeed fascinating, but the biblical references are taken further as they are linked to the local ecclesiastical occupants of the nearby Abbey of Cerne. Speculation is added to the mix to determine why there are no records of the giant if he is, as claimed by others, to be prehistoric. It has been suggested that the Cerne Giant is a depiction of the god Hercules; however, Barker follows the history of Hercules through the ages and concludes that he would have been out of place as a pagan image above Cerne Abbas. Barker also examines other hill giants, all of which are Post-Medieval in date. Barker suggests that antiquarian minded people have essentially ‘type cast’ the giant as a prehistoric figure. Summing up, Hutton concurs with much of Barker’s thinking and adds that the giant is almost certainly a representation of the god Hercules.

         Morgan Evans examines the accounts of discovery and line of enquiry relating to the giant in the 18th century. He re-examines the early references to the giant illustrating the changes to the outline of the giant with a hand drawn sketch. Hutton provides a short summary to this contribution in which he suggests that a Pre-Christian date may have been a forgone conclusion, due to an overlap between archaeology in its infancy and folklore studies. In his general summary of part three, Hutton acknowledges that the giant may be prehistoric, but proceeds to outline some of points of evidence presented in the previous chapters of his argument.

         Part four of this volume ‘The Case for a Living Giant’ introduces the third school of thought on the Cerne Giant. The section is introduced by Barbara Bender and incorporates some rather humorous cartoons to illustrate a different approach, leaving history behind. Bender suggests that the Giant is still living due to the fact that people still clean him, repair him, walk him and ask favours of him. She examines briefly why he is so important to the nation. Rodney Legg is introduced as the first expert witness for this case, and is involved in the first question and answer section of the trial. In his answers Legg outlines the methods and occurrences of cleaning and maintenance on the giant, the possibility of other figures on the hillside. Tom Williamson continues the theme for a living giant; he examines how the Giant is essential to the community and landscape bringing an air of mystery to the town. Williamson examines points from the previous arguments but states that the age of the giant is of little importance. Barbara Bender then summarises this statement before introducing Martin Brown. Brown draws some interesting comparisons between the Long Man of Wilmington and the Cerne Giant, noting that both are equally mysterious, have similar folklore attachments and that both lay within a prehistoric landscape. He suggests that we don’t really want to know the age of the giant, and should perhaps respect his privacy. Bender then introduces Hilary Jones. This is another question and answers section which focuses on the maintenance of the giant and how this may have developed into a modern ritual. Other rituals and celebrations associated with the figure are discussed, including the use of the phallus for modern fertility purposes. The testimony of Sue Clifford engages the jury with what the figure means to individuals and to local people. She begins her statement by expressing why the giant is so important to her personally and to the people of the town. She talks about the persistence of the giant and how he characterises the town as the ‘Giants domain’. Bender then introduces three poets, James Turner, Sandra Tappenden and Jan Farquharson, all of whom have contributed one poem to the chapter. Interestingly all three make reference to the giant’s most famous appendage and its uses.

         Then comes the verdict of the jury which was called with a separate count for each case; there was a clear majority for one case, though I feel it would be unfair to reveal such information in this review. Two additional, short chapters were inserted at the end of the volume. The first noting the reactions and opinions of some of the audience, the second, an account of the TV coverage and the documentary covering the ‘trial’ debate on the day.

         My impression of this volume was one of overall readability, it is apparent that all of the papers included have been prepared for a general audience, rather than a solely academic market, something of a refreshing change as this publication will not necessitate the purchase of an archaeological dictionary. To date this must be considered a comprehensive account of a debate that has existed for decades and will no doubt continue with a ‘snowball effect’, due to the publication of such excellent work. Each case was well summarised by each advocate, all papers were well written and included useful bibliographies relating to each subject. I feel the advancement of scholarship in this area will benefit greatly through this volume as it opens up the subject to such an extensive audience. Excellent value at only £14.95.

Karl Lee
Department of Archaeology and History
University of Wales College, Newport

Review Submitted: June 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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