What better way to reveal England’s famous glowing white chalk than to turn over the sod of our green and pleasant land into a beautiful shape? Since we are celebrating St George’s day, it seems appropriate to show you the place where, legend has it, he slew the dragon. England boasts several such chalk figures, but archaeological research supported by geochemical techniques reveals that this one is the oldest.
It was originally thought to date from the iron age, and represent the Celtic horse goddess Epona. It is in fact far older than the Celts, who only arrived around 800BCE. It was redated in 1995 using optical stimulated luminescence, which reveals how long soil or rock has been hidden from sunlight. The lines making up the figure are chalk filled trenches and were found to be over 3000 years old, dating from around 1600BCE (1000 years after the stones of Stonehenge). Iron age coins depicting it have been excavated in the area. Like the megaliths our mysterious ancestors left behind, the reason and meaning of these figures is unknown, plentiful speculation notwithstanding.
It can be seen from 20 miles away on a good day, leaping off the steep dry valley side whose edge it gallops along. Known as The Manger, it has ripples running down it (called the Giant’s steps) that were left behind by retreating permafrost at the end of the ice age. Nearby lies Dragon Hill, where the serpent slaying supposedly occurred. Above it on the hilltop is one of England’s iron age hill fort structures called Uffington castle (which led by association to the original idea that it was younger), which is Oxfordshire’s highest point. Burial mounds ranging from the Neolithic to the Saxon era dot the landscape.
England’s history is a long series of new peoples arriving in the East, across the channel and North Sea, and spreading West. The henge builders, beaker people, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Norse and Normans all succeeded each other, but the white horse was always maintained. Nowadays, it takes volunteers over 300man hours a year upkeeping it: weeding, scouring the chalk and adding new layers of fresh white chalk.
So what do you get if you turn over England’s ancient ground? A palimpsest of England’s historical landscape, reflecting the waves after waves of varying peoples that superimposed their mark on this island’s beautiful geology.
a highly stylised prehistoric hill figure, 110 m long (374 feet), formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. The figure is situated on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the English civil parish of Uffington.