I’m popping in from amongst moving boxes to draw your attention to a fun story sitting in this week’s #swipefile. A warning up front, though: the picture included, while of an ancient hill figure in the English countryside, may be NSFW (or children, if W is home right now!). As usual, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the story, and then some thoughts on how you could use it.
The story: Scientists unravel a mystery about a naked giant carved into an English hill
The picture itself would likely pique your interest, as it’s not often that you see something like that in a major U.S. newspaper like the Washington Post. If you read on, though, you learn that:
- The picture is of the “Cerne Abbas Giant,” a 180-foot figure on a hill near Dorset, England, that is, needless to say once you’ve seen the picture, very naked. The figure is outlined in white chalk [like a crime scene for giants!]… and nobody has any idea who he is or where he came from.
- There have been lots of guesses as to whom he represents: Hercules, some unknown Celtic deity, or a thumb to the nose at Oliver Cromwell. The guesses haven’t been able to get any firmer, though, because no one really knew how old the giant actually was.
- Until now, that is.
- Thanks to some recent archaeological testing, scientists now believe the giant is most likely from the 700 – 1100 A.D., and from 908 A.D., specifically. What’s interesting: this was not the age scientists expected. Most scientists thought the giant was either “far older or far younger than he is.”
- That’s in part because the first known reference to the giant isn’t until 1694, a solid 700+ years after he likely first appeared. The article suggests that the figure was likely obscured by natural weeds and vegetation for much of that time. The 1694 mention was the record of “a church warden’s account of payment of three shillings to restore the site.” [Kind of makes you wonder how excited the church warden was after the full glory of the giant was revealed!]
- He’s now one of the UK’s most popular “hill figures” [no doubt a combination of how easy it is now to see him from the road and his most prominent feature]—postcards of him are best-sellers in the nearby village. There’s also quick mention of how students once created a partner for the giant out of paper: a giant Marilyn Monroe for him to gaze upon. [sigh]
- Researchers know how the giant was constructed—deep trenches filled with pounded chalk—but dating this particular figure has proven more difficult. It’s protected as a heritage site and nowhere near the kinds of things [trash dumps, wells, etc.] that typically make dating archaeological finds easier.
- The most recent researchers turned to a combination of methods: one that examines snail artifacts [!] and another that can determine how long it’s been since individual grains of quartz in the chalk have been exposed to a ray of sunshine [!!!]. By knowing which kinds of snails appeared in England, and when [I love that this is someone’s life work], they could get a better sense of when the chalk was brought to the site. By analyzing the quartz with “optically stimulated luminescence,” they could narrow the date range even further.
- But, as so often happens, solving one mystery creates another. Now that researchers know the giant’s age, it makes the giant’s potential identity even more curious.
- The newfound age puts it as likely predating, but only just, the construction of a Christian abbey nearby, in 987 A.D. Some historians believe that the abbey may have been built as part of an effort “to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith.’” So, the giant may be a depiction of that god.
- There seems to be some debate about why the Abbey would have commissioned the figure, given that it is (a) naked and (b) not likely a Christian figure. It’s also possible that the carving was an act of resistance against the foundation of the Abbey—and “outsize graffito.” Even odder, none of the Abbey’s records mention the figure, even though it was just yards away. [Methinks that indicates the Abbey wasn’t too happy about it, but I’m no expert!]
- But there’s one final mystery still to solve: drone flights over the site have shown that the giant’s most memorable feature may not be as old as the rest of him. There are indications that the earthworks were altered in the 1700s [giving more credence to the graffito theory?], and that the original structure may be been wearing a belt and trousers.
How you could use it
I’ll admit it: sometimes you just need something silly in your Swipefile, and this article definitely qualifies. That said, the story, or even just aspects of it, could be used to illustrate all sorts of concepts like:
- How hard it is to know some things for sure [even though we know the age, there’s still a bunch we don’t know]
- How science is all about adapting understanding to newfound information
- How important recordkeeping can be [isn’t it fascinating that there’s no mention of that giant figure that was literally right next to Cerne Abbey?!]
- How something hidden can hold incredible power [think of those tiny grains of quartz holding onto the traces of ancient sunshine!]
- The unexpected power of snails… er… seemingly unimportant players in an event
- How solving one mystery can create another
- The lengths to which people will go to make their displeasure known [seriously, those Anglo Saxons must have been ticked]
- How some things—no matter how puerile—never change [the human race is remarkably consistent in drawing phalluses on things that don’t originally have them]
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