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Digging for Britain – Cerne Abbas

In a recent instalment of ‘Digging for Britain,’ Alice Roberts stirred the archaeological pot by asserting that the Dorset Chalk Giant (Cerne Abbas) had Saxon origins rather than the presumed prehistoric roots. The revelation added a layer of intrigue, especially for someone like me, deeply entrenched in Landscape Archaeology. At first glance, the giant’s features seemed to echo a Neolithic connection, reminiscent of the Uffingham White horse. Both figures boasted natural harbours in the hillside, suggesting potential prehistoric maritime use. (Digging for Britain – Cerne Abbas)

My curiosity piqued, I delved into the methods employed to date this iconic figure, and the findings left me with a myriad of questions. The program, available here

The program offers a seemingly clear-cut consensus on dating, yet a closer inspection reveals fundamental issues and crucial omissions that cast doubt on the conclusion. This predicament, in my view, extends beyond this specific case, exposing systemic problems in archaeology, particularly the uncritical acceptance of methodologies that underpin numerous historical assumptions.

The documentary’s primary technique involved excavating four small trenches and penetrating a metre into the topsoil to extract samples and dates. The assumption guiding this approach is that the area beneath the chalk line represents the original surface, thereby providing the latest date for the chalk figure. While the theory isn’t inherently problematic, the reliance on a mere four sampling points raises concerns about the comprehensiveness of the analysis.

carne abbas snails 2
Small trenches for dating evidence

To fully embrace the method’s validity, one must consider the potential variations across the entire area beneath the chalk figure. Such limited sampling leaves room for overlooking nuances, potentially altering the dating narrative. Archaeology, like any scientific pursuit, thrives on meticulousness and exhaustive investigation, and the methodologies applied should withstand scrutiny.

 (Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas)
Snail used to date the chalk figuare

Moreover, the documentary overlooks alternative interpretations and doesn’t address the potential impacts of environmental factors on the chalk giant’s preservation. As we dissect these findings, it becomes imperative to question the assumptions underpinning the entire process and recognize that our understanding of the past hinges on the robustness of archaeological methodologies. (Digging for Britain – Cerne Abbas)

To understand this point I need to refer to another post I wrote on Wanu Manu who also used OSL to date the site MPP was excavating:

Within the Essay, I reported that: “the OSL data was excluded from the report except for a small paragraph – supplementary data shows that of the 42 samples taken:

1 – sample were of 9th Millennium BCE

3 – samples were of the 8th Millennium BCE

8 – samples were of the 7th Millennium BCE

4 – samples were of the 6th Millennium BCE

10 – samples were of the 5th Millennium BCE

6 – samples were of the 4th Millennium BCE

11- samples after 4th Millenium BCE up to 17 AD.

The process employed in the dating of the Dorset Chalk Giant, as revealed in the ‘Digging for Britain’ episode, raises significant concerns about the reliability of the conclusions drawn. While the documentary presents a seemingly definitive dating range, a deeper analysis unveils critical issues that challenge the integrity of the dating methodology.

The reliance on only four samples from the site for Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating introduces a substantial margin of error. With potential variations across the expansive area beneath the chalk figure, such limited sampling could yield dates spanning a wide range, making the obtained data inconclusive. The documentary’s methodology, including the unconventional horizontal sampling process, appears antiquated and lacks the precision expected in 21st-century scientific practices.

 (Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas)
Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas 8

Even if we were to accept the provided dates, a fundamental geological consideration emerges. The site’s location on a very steep hill exposes it to soil creep (0.1cm per annum – 1 metre over 1,000 years), wherein gravity, coupled with rainfall, gradually moves soil downhill. Over a millennium, this natural process could displace the snails and colluvium under the chalk figure by a significant distance. The experts seemingly overlooked this geological reality, casting doubt on the accuracy of the site’s dating.

 (Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas)
Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas 9

Moreover, the chalk figure’s placement directly on topsoil challenges the notion of its not prehistoric in origin. Logically, a prehistoric figure would likely be carved into the exposed white chalk bedrock, minimising the need for maintenance. The historical record indicates later efforts by the church to clean the new figure, suggesting a subsequent covering with soil . This prompts the question: Did the church intentionally obscure the original prehistoric figure during Saxon times, creating a cruder replacement to mock the ancient Cro-Magnon ‘Giants’?

 (Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas)
The current Figuare sits on top of the soil with broken chalk that needs constant maintaining

The presence of an original chalk figure at the entrance of a raised river with a natural harbour for boats, evident in Google Earth and LiDAR Maps, adds another layer of complexity. This context aligns with the theory that the church, perhaps in an act of cultural appropriation or mockery, covered the original prehistoric figure with soil and sculpted a new one.

This leads to a crucial query unaddressed by the program: Why is the figure situated on the corner of the hill range rather than atop the hill, and why is its full visibility only apparent from a considerable height? This observation challenges the proposed function of the figure as a ground-level marker, suggesting a more intricate history and purpose.

Digging for Britain - Cerne Abbas
The Giant is to the far right of the Hill Range and near the bottom – why not at the top of the middle if its a marker?

We must approach archaeological conclusions with a discerning eye, recognising the intricate interplay of geological, historical, and cultural factors that shape our understanding of the past. The Dorset Chalk Giant, once perceived as a straightforward archaeological subject, now beckons for a more nuanced exploration of its complex history.

Part II will look at my LiDAR scans of this monument and uncover what was the figure on the hill in Prehistoric times and what he was holding, which gives us our first clue of what the site on top of the hill was doing 6,000 years ago.

Further Reading

For information about British Prehistory, visit www.prehistoric-britain.co.uk for the most extensive archaeology blogs and investigations collection, including modern LiDAR reports.  This site also includes extracts and articles from the Robert John Langdon Trilogy about Britain in the Prehistoric period, including titles such as The Stonehenge Enigma, Dawn of the Lost Civilisation and the ultimate proof of Post Glacial Flooding and the landscape we see today.

Robert John Langdon has also created a YouTube web channel with over 100 investigations and video documentaries to support his classic trilogy (Prehistoric Britain). He has also released a collection of strange coincidences that he calls ‘13 Things that Don’t Make Sense in History’ and his recent discovery of a lost Stone Avenue at Avebury in Wiltshire called ‘Silbury Avenue – the Lost Stone Avenue’.

Langdon has also produced a series of ‘shorts’, which are extracts from his main body of books:

The Ancient Mariners

Stonehenge Built 8300 BCE

Old Sarum

Prehistoric Rivers

Dykes ditches and Earthworks

Echoes of Atlantis

Homo Superior

For active discussions on the findings of the TRILOGY and recent LiDAR investigations that are published on our WEBSITE, you can join our and leave a message or join the debate on our Facebook Group.

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