The mystery of the white horse

Tucked away in the hills of Oxfordshire, England, amid the upper slopes of the unassuming parish of Uffington, lies a series of winding trenches filled with crushed white chalk. Standing between the scoured lines offers only a hint of what their elegant convergence conveys from afar: a stylised image of a horse, its sinewy, curlicue limbs outstretched in mid-gallop.

Some 365 feet in length from head to tail, the White Horse of Uffington isn’t the only equine hill figure in England, but it is thought to be the most ancient, although its exact date and origin have been a point of controversy for many years. It has often been suggested that the horse was carved to celebrate King Alfred’s victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown (now Uffington Castle) in 871AD. However, in the absence of evidence many experts regard this as little more than folklore.

More convincing is the theory put forward by Simon Palmer and David Miles of the Oxford Archaeological Unit that the horse was carved well over two millennia ago around the time of the Iron Age and functioned as a tribal emblem. Excavations in 1990 led by Palmer and Miles leant weight to this idea when they discovered that the chalk had not simply been exposed by removing turf. In fact it consisted of a series of layers within trenches, some of which contained deposits of fine silt that dated back to the later Bronze Age.

Yet the emblem explanation owes more to the horse creators’ unique style. The body is gently curved, the tail and neck extended; the angular head has a single eye, the front and rear legs are detached as if in motion. These features are characteristic of Celtic images, and in late Iron Age times the southwestern English territories are thought to have been occupied by the Celtic Dobunni tribe, prior to the Roman invasion of Britain.

Along with the all-natural chalk summit of Dragon Hill, where – legend has it – Saint George slew a mythical beast, the Uffington Horse can be seen from across the vale, over three and a half kilometres north of the escarpment. So if ever you spot the image during a train journey between Swindon and Didcot, imagine, if you can, looking out from the grasslands south of ancient Atrebates and seeing the chalk warning for the first time, knowing you were entering the territory of a mysterious, perhaps ominous tribe.