The Uffington White Horse

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Satellite view of the Uffington White Horse Photo Credit- SGS – World Wind (go)

Carved into the hills of Oxfordshire, is a stylized figure of a horse.  The elegant figure is almost 400 feet long and was created by deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk.  The Horse is one of many hill carvings in England and is located on the Berkshire Downs below Whitehorse Hill, a mile and a half south of the village of Uffington.  It is best viewed from afar or from above.

It was thought that the Horse was created in the Iron Age and looks as if it is running towards the Iron Age fort of Uffington Castle..  The figure of the Horse was used on Iron Age coins as well.  Folklore indicated the Horse was created in the Anglo-Saxon period, specifically the reign of Alfred the Great.  Alfred was born in the nearby town of Wantage.  Another story attributes the creation of the Horse to Hengist in the 5th century BCE.  And yet another story, says the Horse isn’t a horse at all, but a representation of a dragon.  Dragon Hill is nearby and is the traditional place where St. George defeated the famous Dragon.  Despite this theory, the figure has been known as a horse since medieval times.  A cartulary of the Abbey of Abingdon from between 1072 and 1084 refers to “the place commonly known as the White Horse Hill” (“locum qui vulgo mons albi equi nuncupatur”).

However in 1995, a new dating technique called optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSC) was used to pinpoint the age of the figure.  OSL determines how long soil has been hidden from sunlight, so the layers of soil underneath the chalk were tested.  Results showed that it has been buried since between 1400 BCE and 600 BCE with the most likely date being between 1200 BCE and 800 BCE.  This moves the creation date of the Horse back to the late Bronze Age.  Images similar to the Horse have been found on coins from the Bronze Age from the Belgae tribe located near by representing a form of the goddess Epona.

No one is quite sure of the purpose of the figure.  It has been theorized it was created as an object sacred to the horse-goddess, Epona, of the Celts.  The British equivalent of Epona was Rhiannon.  Also, the sun god Belinos was associated with horses and is depicted on horseback or in a sun chariot pulled by horses.  The thought is the Horse was carved into the top the hill so the god could see it from above.  Another theory is that the Horse was a symbol or totem of local village marking the beginning of their territory.

The Horse has been an important figure for the people in this area since it was created.  Every seven years, it was the responsibility of the local lord to have the chalk cleaned and scoured to keep it white.  This developed into a festival complete with days of games, wrestling and other merriment.  One pastime was cheese rolling, which was held in the valley called The Manger.  The valley had steep sides and was the place where the Horse was said to eat on moonlit nights.  The festival has long since past, but the Horse is still kept clean by members of English Heritage.

However in 2010, the Horse was vandalized a few days after its annual cleaning.  Purple spray paint was used to deface the head and the eye.  A banner was found nearby which read “fathers 4 justice stop the secret family courts”.  Both New Fathers 4 Justice and Real Fathers for Justice have denied involvement in the vandalism.  Luckily, the damage was repairable and the Horse is back to its former state.

ER

Sources available on request