England’s Hill Figures, Part 1: The Uffington White Horse

The Uffington White Horse is undoubtedly Britain’s oldest and most famous hill figure. For quite some time it was thought to date from the Iron Age. However, in the nineteen-nineties, a new dating technique was developed. Optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), can show how long soil has been hidden from sunlight. The lines of the horse consist of trenches dug in the hillside, then filled with chalk. OSL testing of soil from between the lower layers of that chalk shows that it has been buried since between 1400 BC and 600 BC, and probably between 1200 BC and 800 BC, and thus the horse is of Bronze Age origin and has been dated at 3000 years old by the Oxford Archeological Unit. At an age 1000 years older than previously thought the discovery makes this the oldest hill figure and the most likely inspiration for the creation of many of the other local white horses and hill figures.

Although its closeness to Uffington castle may have inspired the creation of the first Westbury horse by Bratton camp, which also faced right. The earliest reference to Uffington’s White Horse was in in the 1070’s when white horse hill was mentioned, the first actual reference to the horse itself was in 1190.

The horse is unique in its features, being a very long sleek disjointed figure. This leads some to believe it represents the mythical dragon that St. George slain on the adjacent Dragon hill or it may represent his horse. However others believe it represents a Celtic horse goddess Epona, known to represent fertility, healing and death. The horse may have been created to be worshipped in religious ceremonies. Similar horses feature in Celtic jewelry and there is also evidence of horse worship in the Iron Age. The scouring or cleaning of the horse is believed to have been a religious festival in later times, giving more creditability to the figure being of religious origin.

Others believe that it commemorates Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 861 AD or that it was created in the seventh century by Hengist in the image of a horse on his standard. However the recent scientific data upon its age seem to discount these more modern theories. Several Iron age coins bearing representations of horses very similar in style and design to the Uffington horse have been found and help support the theory of the horse being from an earlier period than the seventh or eight centuries.

Also unusual is the fact that the horse faces to the right while all other horses and other animal hill figures face left, with three exceptions, the very first Westbury horse, the Osmington horse and the more modern Bulford Kiwi. The earliest record of the white horse is from Abingdon Abbey in the late 12th century, although white horse hill was mentioned a century earlier. There are many records after this period with a very good historical record from the 18th century in which the horse has changed little in appearance from then to present day. There were occasions when the horse became overgrown. In 1880, the geoglyph was in danger of being lost like many of the other hill figures of the past but since that time English Heritage has begun caring for this ancient monument.

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