Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Timeless Thoroughbred Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Christine Finn

England's Uffington Horse mystifies scholars and mesmerizes visitors.


The White Horse (1), is nearly contemporary with Uffington Hillfort (2), one of a number of Iron Age forts built along the Ridgeway (3), a trail that runs for 85 miles. Dragon Hill (4), a flat-topped mound, has never been excavated. Legend has it that a Roman temple once stood there. Burials from the period have been found in a nearby barrow (5) and Roman-era tiles have been excavated at the hillfort, suggesting that there was an elaborate Roman building nearby. [LARGER IMAGE]

From a distance, the White Horse of Uffington appears suddenly, a scratch mark on the verdant downs. It bolts from view like a startled colt, only to appear again, closer and more majestic, with a turn of the lane. In the rich archaeological landscape of southern England, this 365-foot-long, 130-foot-high figure cut deep into the hillside chalk millennia ago remains a mystery.

The eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukely, who surveyed prehistoric England, suggested the horse resembled those depicted on Celtic coins, an idea that is still debated today. Art historians regard the figure's abstraction as typical of the art style called La Tène that spread across Western Europe between the fifth and first centuries B.C. But in the 1960s, British folklorist Diana Woolner argued that the horse had originally been plumper and that narrowing had been caused over the years by communal scouring.

In 1990, the Oxford Archaeological Unit (OAU), led by David Miles and Simon Palmer, analyzed the anatomy of the horse by cutting a trench through its body. Testing Woolner's theory, scientists from Oxford University examined layers of chalk and carried out optically stimulated luminescence testing, or OSL, to determine when its layers had last been exposed to sunlight. They concluded that the horse's shape had in fact changed little over the last 3,000 years. "The fact it has survived so long suggests regular cleaning and maintenance," says Gary Lock, co-director of the Ridgeway Project, which is excavating and analyzing the whole White Horse landscape. The latest research by Lock's team from Oxford University and the OAU compounds the curiosities. It now appears the landscape was altered in prehistoric times by building up the surrounding hills to form fortifications or boundaries. These could have made the horse less visible from certain vantage points and made parts of the landscape visually exclusive to certain members of the community, such as chiefs and priests, possibly for ritual activity.

Landscape archaeology experts, including Richard Bradley at Reading University, are excited by the extant elements of a prehistoric landscape at the White Horse. The monument's setting next to a glacial valley--known locally as the Manger--is naturally stunning. The clouds and changing light make the folds of earth appear to ripple. "The landscape lends itself to ceremony," says Alistair Barclay, the OAU's research officer.

For more information on the White Horse, go to the Oxford Archaeological Unit's website

Christine Finn is a contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America