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Editor Mike Pitts
Not so long ago
Archaeologist Martin Bell grew up close to the Long Man of Wilmington. When asked by television to conduct an excavation, he was able to resolve the mystery of this famous figureâ€™s origins
Cerne Abbas, Dorset, a giant male phallic figure with a club; Uffington, Oxfordshire, a stylised horse; and Wilmington, East Sussex, a male outline with a staff in each hand: the hill figures of the English chalk are iconic images of ancient landscape. Yet their date and meaning remain mysterious and controversial.
The Wilmington Giant, or Long Man, is on the steep chalk escarpment of the South Downs, near Eastbourne. At 69 m tall, he is the second largest ancient human figure in the world, after the Giant of Attacama, Chile (120 m).
Many dates have been suggested for the Long Man. Some argued for the Neolithic because there is a large long barrow on the hill above, and what were thought to be flint mines (although these now seem more likely to be later chalk or flint pits). Others have been tempted by an Iron Age â€˜Celticâ€™ attribution, although on no more secure basis than a rather general similarity to other hill figures, particularly the White Horse of Uffington, the form of which closely resembles horses on Late Iron Age coins.
The case for an early date for Uffington has recently been strengthened by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of silts in features outlining the figure, which suggests it is Late Bronze Age (BA, February 1999). The principal of OSL is that exposure to light releases trapped electrons in crystals (eg quartz): the quantity trapped since last exposure provides a measure of the age of the sediment.
Others have favoured a Romano-British date for Wilmington because of a similarity to figures holding two standards on Roman coins. The most developed and persuasive argument for its date emerged in 1965 when Sonia Hawkes discovered an Anglo-Saxon brooch at Finglesham, Kent, decorated with a man in a horned helmet carrying two spears, perhaps Odin. It was dated to the 7th century. Later dates have also been posited: the Long Man overlooks a Medieval Priory so a Christian attribution is possible.
In reality the simple outline has few features to assist with dating. Furthermore Rodney Castleden has shown that it has been significantly altered by successive not very accurate â€˜restorationsâ€™. Thus all that can safely be concluded is that it could be of almost any date before the first drawing made in AD 1710.
At the time of the last restoration in 1969 a limited investigation was carried out by the gifted Sussex archaeologist Eric Holden. He excavated small trenches across the outline, finding hints in some places, but not others, of shallow ditches thought to have demarcated the figure prior to its outlining in bricks in 1874. Pieces of fired clay were found, which were considered to be Romano-British tile.
As a schoolboy I assisted in digging some of these trenches and was fortunate to be encouraged in my archaeological interest by Holden. I was brought up in the South Downs only a few kilometres from the Long Man, which had been a subject of fascination from childhood. The opportunity to follow up this interest and address questions of the manâ€™s date and origins arose when I was approached by the makers of a television series.
Landscape Mysteries, a joint production between the Open University and BBC2 presented by scientist Aubrey Manning, wished to use hill figures as a vehicle for discussing the role which people played in the landscape history of the chalk. My PhD thesis was on the land-use history of the South Downs, and I was asked if I would carry out a small excavation to investigate the Long Man. This was a convenient opportunity because it provided three days of fieldwork for our University of Reading MSc Geoarchaeology class. We were most fortunate in securing the help of Chris Butler and his very able Mid-Sussex Field Archaeological Team.
Previous generations had attempted to date and understand the Long Man mainly using iconographic evidence, comparing his form with dated figures elsewhere. We were to try a different, geoarchaeological approach by looking at the landscape history of the steep escarpment slope on which the figure had been made.
We did not touch the figure itself, because of its archaeological sensitivity. Any work on that needs to be very carefully planned as part of future restoration, now becoming due as some concrete blocks from the outline placed in 1969 are loose and slipping.
In addition to the specific interest of the Long Man we were also keen to discover if this steep slope had once been wooded. There is controversy about the extent of closed woodland in the early Postglacial, 11,500-6,000 years ago: many chalkland sites produce evidence of former woodland, some do not. It has been argued that as forest spread in warmer times after the Ice Age, steeper, unstable slopes retained refuge populations of open country plants and animals; these later expanded as Neolithic farming communities cleared trees.
Our method was to machine cut a trench at the base of the slope to look at the sediment sequence, then carefully hand excavate an adjoining strip, recording in three dimensions the positions of all artefacts, no matter how modern, in order to date each layer.
At the base of our trench there were chalk meltwater muds from a time of rapid physical weathering at the end of the last Ice Age. Above these were bowl-shaped features, perhaps tree-throw pits because they contained land snails of woodland habitats, showing this part of the slope had been wooded earlier in the Postglacial. They also contained some flint flakes, so they could be archaeological features.
Over these was a buried soil. Ed Rhodes, formerly of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at Oxford, now of the Australian National University, has used OSL to date this soil to the mid-2nd millennium BC. The snails show that by this time the landscape was open. Later in the Bronze Age the soil was buried by more soil derived from cultivation at the base of the slope. Snails show the escarpment above was grassland. Many sites on the South Downs show evidence for quite extensive Bronze Age soil erosion. Bronze Age and Neolithic pottery and flints from the basal soil and the colluvium indicate that a settlement was nearby.
Bronze Age activity was followed by an extended period when nothing happened: between the Early Iron Age and Medieval times the slope was short-grazed grassland. Given that the Long Man is manifestly a monument of short grassland it might theoretically belong to any period since the Bronze Age when that environment was established. However over the long period of slope stability very few artefacts were deposited, none in the Iron Age or Romano-British periods. Even from Medieval times there are only a few scraps of pottery, perhaps spread with manure from the nearby Priory. We might infer that there was nothing special about the slope then to draw people to the spot.
Following this extended period of stability the slope, whilst still grazed grassland, suddenly became unstable. Chalk lumps rolled down and a soil surface was buried by a series of small-scale erosion episodes. The base of the buried soil contained fragments of Medieval pottery, and its surface pieces of brick, dated by Ed Rhodes using thermoluminescence (a method similar to OSL but the electrons are released by heating rather than light). It showed that the brick dated to the mid-16th century AD. That date is also consistent with a much less precise OSL date on the buried soil itself. It is also supported by the finding of land mollusc species in the soil which are thought to have been introduced to the area in the Medieval period.
The brick is particularly interesting given Holdenâ€™s earlier discovery of fragments of possible tile on the figure itself. In the post-Medieval period, pottery, glass and other artefacts become much more common, as one might expect if from this time onwards the site attracted the special attention of visitors.
The lines of evidence are many, and individually perhaps open to question. Together, however, they suggest the figure was cut much later than most people believed, in the 16th or 17th centuries AD when the slope suddenly became unstable, perhaps when the figure was cut. It appears that from its first making the figure may have been outlined in brick. This is certainly not the result we expected. It sets up a whole new mystery as to the meaning of this figure in the context of an Early Modern world.
Martin Bell is professor of archaeological science at the University of Reading
Back to Modern Culture
As things stand now, our two English chalkland giants make a perfectly contrasting pair: Wilmington has an archaeologically determined date, but no known historical context; Cerne Abbas has no archaeologically determined date, but a hypothetical context reconstructed with care and in detail. Nor need they fit together, even if eventually proven both to belong to the 16th and 17th centuries. A hundred years is a long time in Early Modern political and social history and more than that may separate the creation of the two figures.
Excavation has now suggested that the Long Man was made between 1540 and 1710. Documentary evidence suggests that the Cerne giant was created between 1617 and 1694; my Bristol colleague Joe Bettey has made a plausible case that he was first cut during the 1650s. According to this reading, he was a savage visual satire on the reputation of Englandâ€™s dominant figure in that decade, Oliver Cromwell, made on the property, and at the behest, of a defeated and embittered politician called Denzil Holles. The joke was on Cromwellâ€™s image as â€˜the English Herculesâ€™.
If this is so, then the Wilmington man could be another political satire, with a different connotation, from the same period. It could, on the other hand, be a religious image, produced by zealous Protestants depicting the door of salvation. It could embody a range of other Tudor or Stuart cultural associations, some of which would twin it or contrast it with the Cerne figure, and some disassociate it completely. As the Cerne giant is still objectively undated, and could have been cut at any time between the Bronze Age and the later Stuart period, its context may, of course, be divided from that of the Long Man by up to three millennia.
Thanks to Martin Bell and his collaborators, we can at least celebrate the fact that we have our first, apparently unequivocally, Early Modern hill figure, and historians now have to reckon with it. This means that a detailed study is now urgently needed of the people who owned the hillside at Wilmington between the reigns of Henry VIII and of Anne, and of their political and social attitudes and the available range of motifs that may be related to the figureâ€™s form.
The priory was suppressed in 1414, its land converted into the endowment for a royal chantry at Chichester Cathedral. This being so, it should have been confiscated by the Crown and sold off to a noble or gentry family in 1547 when the chantries were dissolved. We must now establish who bought the estate and who lived on it through the years till 1700.
The fast track to such work is closed: the only volume of the Victoria County History of Sussex not yet published is that which covers Wilmington. Frustration at this short-term check may, however, be counterbalanced by the fact that, in the broader sense, we have a clear context for a Tudor or Stuart giant at Wilmington. In social and political terms, â€˜heâ€™ was the product of a post-Reformation world in which secular landowners, buying up the property of the dissolved religious institutions, were stamping their presence on the landscape, as well as on society and ideology. Significantly, the situations at Wilmington and Cerne make an exact parallel, the chantry connected to the former having its counterpart in the abbey at the latter.
It is also important, however, that the distinctive form of hill figure recorded in the Tudor and Stuart periods was a giant. There was one on the chalk ridge south-east of Cambridge in 1640, and another on Shotover Hill, above Oxford, before the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Plymouth Hoe had one by 1486, joined by a second and smaller figure during the later Tudor age; both were destroyed by military works ordered by Charles II. Giants were to the Early Modern period what chalk horses were to Wiltshire and Dorset landowners in the subsequent 200 years, and with a much wider distribution.
They have not, however, been studied by specialists in that period, any more than the latter, or medievalists, have paid proper attention to holy wells or turf mazes. All these phenomena have been presumed to be survivals from a misty pagan past: their association with the latter has been so complete that historians have not even considered systematically why the Tudor and Stuart English might have preserved them if they were ancient in origin. The hillside giants have been treated, in the titular phrase of Paul Newmanâ€™s book on chalk figures, as the â€˜lost gods of Albionâ€™ (BA February 1999). They have effectively been lost to proper historical study.
It is immediately apparent to any literary scholar that giants were important characters in Early Modern English culture. They were not merely part of its folklore or mythology, but of its history. As represented in the mainstream tradition that had developed since the 12th century, they were the aboriginal inhabitants, fought and dispossessed by Brutus the Trojan and his band of refugees, when the latter arrived to found the British race. The most dramatic episode in the story was the single combat fought on the coast of Devon, between the Trojan Corineus and a particularly large and terrifying giant called Goemagot, ending in the death of the latter.
During the 15th century this basic tradition was still being elaborated by local additions, and it took on a new lease of life with the arrival of the Tudor dynasty, which claimed a direct family link with ancient British heroes through its Welsh blood. Even under the Stuarts, when scholars were becoming wary of it, it was still celebrated by poets and playwrights. Behind it lay the Old Testament, with its references to â€˜giants in the earth in those daysâ€™ and â€˜the sons of Anakâ€™, but also the largely lost mythology of the old North, lingering in the tantalising Anglo-Saxon references to ettins, ents, thyrses and other shadowy huge beings. It is small wonder that giants are embedded in the landscape of British folklore, throughout recorded history, both prehistoric monuments and striking natural features being regularly attributed to them.
Our Early Modern hillside giants were not, however, found in backlands where surviving aboriginal people might harbour vestiges of ancestral rites, but in regions of mainstream culture. It can be no coincidence that the nationâ€™s two universities each had its figure by the early 17th century. The original giant at Plymouth, Devonâ€™s greatest seaport, was maintained by the corporation, and was named â€˜Gogmagogâ€™. Unsurprisingly, the smaller companion who joined him later was â€˜Corineusâ€™; they added up to a civic celebration of local history.
The same tale probably accounted for the Cambridge giant, its setting still called the â€˜Gogmagog Hillsâ€™. Cerne was the site of one of Englandâ€™s most famous Medieval abbeys, on the main road between another (Sherborne) and the county town, and later on the Holles family were in the front rank of national politicians. Wilmington was just off the main road between the capital of East Sussex and the Cinque Ports. The place of giants in the Tudor municipal imagination was much greater than that suggested by the single appearance of a carving at Plymouth. Models of giants were prominent in summer parades staged by city councils and guilds in the 16th century at London, Chester, Salisbury and Coventry (and probably elsewhere); the parades themselves were a Late Medieval innovation.
The lusty lad at Cerne may yet be proved ancient, and other vanished figures may have been so. The recent dating of the Uffington horse proves that the prehistoric British did make hill figures, even if its prominence as a Medieval â€˜wonderâ€™ suggests it might indeed have been the only survivor. What we must ask now is why scholars of the post-1750 period have been so determined to make both the Cerne and Wilmington giants into â€˜lost godsâ€™, the preserve of archaeologists and not historians. Scholars have thought that the Long Man might have been many things, but nobody seems to have wanted him to be post-Reformation, even though the evidence always allowed for it. As so often these days, a study of the past of archaeology throws up revealing insights into modern intellectual culture.
Ronald Hutton is professor of history at the University of Bristol
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005