The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 112

Issue 112

May / Jun 2010


Rare prehistoric finds at major Carlisle dig

Hammerwich hoard "saved" – but who for?

Mary Rose studies query science of tracing migration

Surprising age of new-found stone row on Dartmoor

in brief & phase 2


University archaeology

THE BIG DIG: Discovering Bosworth

The Buried Gods of Gogmagog

Three Men and a (Leaky) Boat

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates the archaeological value of encyclopaedic websites and Stuart Jeffrey describes the Grey Lierature Library


A child's gift to science, the human remains debate


Your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth explores the great rewards and challenges of undersea archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Buried Gods of Gogmagog

There is still much to say about Britain's white fill figures, most cut from the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. Most controversial are the Gogmagog "giants", which Tom Lethbridge claimed to have found near a hillfort in Cambridgeshire. Terry Welbourn reports.

Between 1923 and 1957, Thomas Charles Lethbridge was honorary keeper of Anglo-Saxon antiquities at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge. Whilst working there, he heard tales that a giant figure once existed on the banks of Wandlebury hillfort

Early Cambridgeshire antiquarians John Layer (1586–1640) and William Cole (1714–82) claimed to have seen the hill figure, and 19th century oral tales stated that it was once visible from the nearby village of Sawston (though these have since been disproved). In 1911 Arthur Gray, master of Jesus College, Cambridge, had published a translation of a local folktale recorded by the medieval historian Gervase of Tilbury. It told of an ancient moonlit battle in the Wandlebury ring between Obsbert, son of Hugh and a fearsome knight. Lethbridge decided the Wandlebury giant had immortalised this mythical knight.

He thought the Cambridgeshire figure would have been similar to the chalk-cut Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset, which he had visited in 1928. In a letter to The Times in 1936 he suggested it might have been inside the hillfort. He concluded that the Wandlebury figure had fallen into disrepair and vanished from view in the 19th century.

He finally set out to solve the mystery in autumn 1954. After a survey he thought the most likely site of the lost hill figure was on the south-facing slope below the hillfort. Rather than conduct a labour-intensive dig, he decided to ram a metal probe into the turf. He hoped the depth the rod penetrated, and the sound and vibrations it made on impact with the chalk, would allow him to detect the giant. As these investigations would involve only minor disturbance, the owners of the Wandlebury estate – the Cambridge Preservation Society (CPS) – granted him permission to proceed.

In a letter to Sir Cyril Fox that November, Lethbridge declared: "I have found Gogmagog". He sketched not a Cerne Abbas "indecency", but "a gent in a bowler hat" wielding a spear and shield. His investigations continued throughout the Christmas period and on into the following year.

In April he was part of a team of archaeologists, led by Brian Hartley, investigating the Wandlebury ditches. But consumed by his "discovery", Lethbridge found the dig mundane and gravitated back to his own research on the lower slopes. Many of those at the excavation were scornful of his undertaking, and believed that his "figure" could be explained by solifluction in the chalk (under permafrost conditions in the last ice age, fractured chalk and soil could be sorted into an expansive polygonal pattern), or even an over-active imagination. He was astounded at the criticism: he considered it incredulous that his efforts should have ignited such vitriol.

He eventually revealed three figures: a pre-Norman warrior with a round shield, that he recognised as the knight in Gervase's tale; a hooded goddess on a steed; and a sun god. The CPS allowed him to commence a formal excavation, and he and his appointed helpers, including CF Tebbutt, began the process of exposing the figures.

Henry Urmston Willink – master of Magdalene College and vice chancellor of Cambridge University – was kept frequently updated by Lethbridge. Initially he was quite excited by the discoveries, though he urged caution. An outsider report requested by the CPS from Mr BW Sparks (who was to become a major figure in British geomorphology) and Mr WV Lewis, had concluded the depressions discovered by Lethbridge were most likely natural, not man-made. In response to a further request from the chairman of the CPS for an independent opinion on the features Lethbridge was exposing, the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) formed a committee comprising Ian Cornwall, WF ("Peter") Grimes, Christopher Hawkes and Stuart Piggott. Sensing that some of these eminent archaeologists would oppose theexcavation, Willink made clear his own position: he would have to remain impartial at all times.

Lethbridge chose to ignore Willink's prudence, and embarked on a worldwide publicity campaign. Headlines such as "The goggle-eyed mother of god", and a story in The Times about the discovery of a 3,000- year-old hill figure, caused concern with some academic colleagues. Lethbridge set off on a lecture tour and conducted a number of interviews with the BBC. Terence Grey, the owner of the Wandlebury estate, was enraged at Lethbridge's methodology and discourteous attitude. Yet despite the furore, excavations continued throughout the Christmas period of 1955 and on into the new year.

In May 1957, renowned Egyptologist and anthropologist Margaret Murray joined the debate. In a letter to The Times she launched a scathing attack on the academic fraternity. Her anger was largely aimed at Grimes and Piggott for their refusal to acknowledge Lethbridge's discovery. She appeared to be reacting to what she considered to be the straight-jacket methodology of 1950s scholarship.

Grimes responded that Murray was out of touch with current archaeological thinking. Grahame Clark and Geoffrey Bushnell added levity to the debate, suggesting "...that a League of Unscientific Antiquarians be formed to combat the menace ofthese scientific archaeologists". Throughout proceedings, Bushnell, like Willink (who in 1955 had urged Grimes and Fox to discuss the figures), always attempted to arbitrate, and kept an honest and straightforward dialogue between all parties. After Murray's public proclamation, Fox wrote to Lethbridge expressing his disdain at Murray's attack on Grimes.

The CBA committee eventually concluded that Lethbridge had unwittingly excavated natural features dating from the last ice age. Its majority report was submitted to Willink on 18 September 1957, signed by Grimes, Piggott and Cornwall, with renowned ice age geologist Frederick Zeuner's support. Hawkes's more cautious conclusions were attached as a minority report: he felt his colleague's findings did not necessarily disprove Lethbridge's thesis.

 Wandlebury figures
Lethbridge's Book

Lethbridge's final map of his Wandlebury figures (coloured by British Archaeology). Excavated areas are depicted by a continuous line; broken lines show where he sounded with an iron bar.

That same year Lethbridge's book Gogmagog – The Buried Gods (Routledge & Kegan Paul) presented the layman with his case for the hill figures' authenticity. The book contained a line of enquiry into the lost gods of Albion, suggesting that Gogmagog was a name aligned to the Great Goddess herself. He also controversially championed Margaret Murray, who had argued that modern witch cults were survivals from a prehistoric religion.

Sir Thomas Kendrick, director of the British Museum, reviewed The Buried Gods in The Times. This prompted aflurry of responses, including one from MA Pinhorn of Hatfield who referred to Dr Dale's sighting of a figure in 1730: "Wandlebury hath three ramparts and two grafts between and a giant figure of Gogmagog cut on the turf in the middle of the camp". This added weight to a growing suspicion: a figurehad indeed once existed at Wandlebury, but within the earthwork and not on the lower slopes as Lethbridge was now suggesting.

The CBA committee's inspection had revealed contemporary ploughmarks cutting through the exposed goddess. Lethbridge admittedthat these marks were present, but he attributed them to the stone and iron ages, claiming that the figures he had uncovered were well below disturbances made by any modern plough. This fact, he said, had already been published in the Archaeological News Letter, long before he carried out his excavations.

Despite the committee's misgivings, Lethbridge appears to have maintained a healthy and friendly dialogue with the CPS administrators. VJ Gastor, assisting master of the CPS, requested that he present them with a copy of Gogmagog – The Buried Gods. He duly obliged, including with his book a number of aerial photographic postcards of his excavations.

In the autumn of 1957, disillusioned with Cambridge and the continued criticisms, Lethbridge and his wifeMina moved from their home in Sedley Taylor Road, Cambridge, to the Devonshire village of Branscombe. His ally Tebbutt continued to fight his corner, and even Miles Burkitt suggested consulting periglacial geologists at the Sedgwick Museum. Two reports by CL Forbes were eventually submitted, but neither reached a firm conclusion as to whether Lethbridge's figures were natural or artificial. In May 1958, Tebbutt even took Mr Greenfield from the Ministry of Works over to Wandlebury, and petitioned him to involve the ministry into solving the conundrum in the chalk.

In a letter to the CBA, Tebbutt suggested that two camps had arisen: Grimes and Piggott locked in opposition against Hawkes's more sympathetic appraisal. In January 1959, Gastor tried to appease Lethbridge, stating that although the majority report appeared to the contrary, the CPS was not saying that it disputed his claims of a hill figure at Wandlebury.

Fifty six years have now passed since Lethbridge's "discovery". Recent research by Cambridge University and WA Clark, former head warden at Wandlebury Country Park, has cast further doubt on the figures. There are, however, factions who still trust in Lethbridge's findings, and – even amongst those in opposition –many still believe that a giant did once exist at Wandlebury. But its whereabouts have yet to be discovered.

Terry Welbourn is the co-author, with Simon Brighton, of Echoes of the Goddess: A Quest for the Sacred Feminine in the British Landscape (Ian Allen Publishing 2010). He is seeking a publisher for his recently completed TC Lethbridge biography. Wandlebury Country Park is owned by Cambridge Past, Present and Future (formerly Cambridge Preservation Society).

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