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Museums: Britannia Rides Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Eric A. Powell

[image]This Bronze Age pony cap was discovered in Scotland and bought by Sir Walter Scott. (Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland) [LARGER IMAGE]

In Kentucky bluegrass country, the horse is king. Outside the city of Lexington, thoroughbred farms blanket rolling hills that bear a striking resemblance to the English countryside. Visitors quickly learn that connections with Britain go beyond similarities in landscape--English nobility make frequent visits, and Queen Elizabeth keeps horses stabled outside Lexington, not far from the Kentucky Horse Park, a massive working farm with two museums dedicated to the horse. It's no coincidence, then, that the park is playing host to "All the Queen's Horses," a one-time exhibition that celebrates the long history of horses in Britain. Running until August 24, it showcases a spectacular collection of 450 objects, including a number of significant archaeological artifacts that demonstrate that Britons' fascination with all things equestrian began as far back as the last Ice Age, when the horse served as a source of both inspiration and protein.

What the exhibition touts as Britain's first piece of art is a striking profile of a horse carved on bone circa 10,500 B.C. With its flaring nostrils, ruffled mane, and front legs straining forward, the evocative etching suggests the horse is dashing toward some Ice Age finish line. The first object in the exhibition, the bone is paired with an eighteenth-century painting of a horse rearing in fright after it spies a lion. The painting portrays Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in the north of England where the Ice Age bone fragment was eventually excavated.

Thousands of years later, during the Late Bronze Age, Celts began domesticating stocky ponies. The sheer number and quality of ornate harness fittings, bridle bits, and horse brooches on display show the Britons spared no expense when it came to outfitting their horses and chariots. Julius Caesar was impressed with the Celts' skill at maneuvering their swift chariots, and his visit to the island in 55 B.C. resulted in the first written record of British horsemanship. Richly decorated cavalry helmets and depictions of Epona, the Gaulish horse goddess, show that horses continued to play an important role in British life after the Roman conquest.

The highlight of the exhibition is a re-creation of the burial of an Anglo-Saxon warrior and his horse discovered in 1997 at the Lakenheath Air Force base in northern England. Remarkably, all the bones in the re-creation--with the exception of the horse's skull--are original. The exhibition follows the horse through the Middle Ages and up to the present day. More recent artifacts on display include gems like Oliver Cromwell's spurs, a flag captured in Afghanistan during the last cavalry charge in the history of the British Empire, and the cavalry bugle that sounded the WWI armistice.

On the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park are a number of other equine-related attractions well worth a visit, including the grave of the legendary Man O'War. Perhaps the most celebrated thoroughbred in American history, Man O'War was descended from the very finest British stock.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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