Uffington White HorseWith the widespread use of optical stimulated luminescence (OSL) for dating soil samples, the mysterious giant hillside carvings of horses and men are finally being placed in an historical context. Paul Newman, author of a comprehensive survey of the subject, considers our current knowledge of these impressive relics, set against the many ways we have appraised them in the past.

The study of hill-figures was once a fringe area of archaeology, a speculative fun park distinguished by folkloristic echoes and nebulous anecdote. Typical of this was the whimsical theory advanced by Christine Whipp (1996) who dated three of England’s best-known carvings to the time of the Plantaganets. Picking up a reference to the Cerne Giant’s missing lion-skin cloak, she declared he was a portrait of Richard the Lionheart. His challenging stance celebrated his courage and skill as a fighter; the mighty penis was a satiric allusion to his ‘inverted’ sexuality. As for the Long Man of Wilmington, that’s none other than Richard’s Chancellor, William Longchamps, the son of a Norman serf who raised the ransom for Richard’s release nd also shared his homosexual inclinations. To complete the trilogy, the Uffington Horse portrays an Arab mare Richard brought back from the Crusades.

Ingenious, tongue-in-cheek stuff this may sound, but scarcely less incredible than earlier experts and antiquaries who invoked the Cerne Giant in terms of the victory of solar worshippers over sun and serpent cults; or as Cernunnos, ‘Lord of the Animals’; or Nodons, a god of hunting and healing; or even the pagan idol Heil, who was banished by St Augustine. By comparison, William Stukeley’s identification of the Giant with Hercules was restrained and plausible.

Dating the light
The first blast of chill realism smote this floral speculation in 1994 when the belly and beak of the Uffington Horse were excavated. Samples from the lowest level of sediment were subjected to optical stimulated luminescence (OSL), and dated to 1300-600 BC, suggesting a Late Bronze or Early Iron Age origin. This was both a breakthrough and a deathblow. Gone was the myth of the horse being Uther Pendragon’s steed or Wotan’s six-legged mount or a memorial of King Alfred’s victory over the Danes. In its place was the amazing revelation that this prehistoric sketch had been scoured and kept as clean ‘as the first plume of the snow’ by waves of invaders, settlers and, finally, by the National Trust for some 3,000 years.

The Red Horse of Tysoe

The Uffington Horse was by no means an isolated phenomenon. Another stately creature, the Red Horse of Tysoe, once presided over the Warwickshire hills near Banbury but was allowed to grass over in the 18th century. Cut into the clay around Edgehill and reddened over, the image was a wonder of Elizabethan England. An early commentator, the Reverend Francis Wise, attributed it to 1461 when Richard, Earl of Warwick, at Towton, Yorkshire, during the Wars of Roses, leapt off his horse and plunged his sword into its side, saying that he would henceforth fight shoulder to shoulder with his men–an incident that allegedly saved the day. But many prefer to see the Red Horse as a Saxon motif, relating to the Angles who colonised the Stour valley (AD 600) and the fierce war-god Tiw, who had his hand bitten off by the Fenris Wolf and to whom Tuesday or Tiwaz-day is sacred.

Cut into the clay of Warwickshire, the Red Horse is a rare example of a Midlands hill-figure. It seems the rolling downs of Wiltshire has provided a canvas for the turf-artist more than any other county, for not only does it own nine chalk horses, but an immense kiwi (420 feet long) at Bulford carved by the New Zealand troops at Sling Camp during WW2, and intricate regimental badges at Fovant.

The most conspicuous of the Wiltshire horses is at Westbury. Lacking the impressionistic panache of its cousin at Uffington, it is slightly wooden and formal-looking, like a docile creature staring at you over a farmer’s fence. But its setting, on the slope of Bratton Camp, is impressive, and tradition ascribes it to King Alfred’s victory over the Danes at Ethandune; the Horse is, if you like, a badge of victory. But the present creature is the result of drastic cosmetic surgery performed in 1778 by Mr Gee, a steward of Lord Abingdon, on an older, sag-bellied beast, of pathetic appearance, with a tail resembling a dolphin’s and a large ringed eye. So now, the debate still rages: how old was the original beast? Was it originally a cousin of the white horse of Uffington?

None of the other Wiltshire horses present an historical enigma. The elegant horse at Alton Barnes was cut by a tenant of Manor Farm, Mr Robert Pile, in 1812. The apologetic-looking Marlborough Horse was cut by schoolboys in 1804, and the giraffe-necked, originally glass-eyed, Cherhill charger by Dr Christopher Alsop in 1780. Standing about 200 yards from the top of Labour-in-Vain hill, he boomed instructions through a megaphone to his workforce, ordering them to move around until a credibly equine shape was achieved and then the turf was pared away.

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