The cutting of huge figures or geoglyphs into the turf of English hillsides has been going on for more than 3000 years. There are 56 hill figures scattered around England, with the vast majority on the chalk downlands of the southern part of the country. The figures include giants, horses, crosses and regimental badges. Though the majority of these glyphs date within the last three hundred years or so there are one or two that are much older.
The most famous of these figures is perhaps also the most mysterious, the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.
The Uffington White Horse is a prehistoric hill figure, 110 m (360 ft) long, formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk.
The horse is thought to represent a tribal symbol, perhaps connected with the builders of Uffington Castle. It is similar to horses depicted on Celtic coinage, the currency of the pre-Romano-British population, and on the Marlborough Bucket (an Iron Age burial bucket found in Marlborough, Wiltshire).
Another theory proposed by University of Southampton archaeologist Joshua Pollard points to the horse's alignment with the sun, particularly in midwinter when the sun appears to overtake the horse, to indicate that it was created as a depiction of a "solar horse", reflecting mythological beliefs that the sun was carried across the sky on a horse or in a chariot.
The Uffington White Horse was created some time between 1380 and 550 bc, during the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. The site is owned and managed by the National Trust and is a scheduled monument. The Guardian stated in 2003 that "for more than 3,000 years, the Uffington White Horse has been jealously guarded as a masterpiece of minimalist art." The Uffington Horse is by far the oldest of the white horse figures in Britain.
The earliest reference to the site is found in Medieval Welsh literature. The Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest, 1375–1425) states that "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it, and it is white. Nothing grows upon it."
Until the late 19th century, the horse was scoured every seven years as part of a more general local fair held on the hill. Francis Wise wrote in 1736: "The ceremony of scouring the Horse, from time immemorial, has been solemnized by a numerous concourse of people from all the villages roundabout." After the work was done a rural festival was held sponsored by the lord of the manor.
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