Britain's mysterious Uffington white horse is 'losing weight'
3rd August 2023

Britain’s mysterious Uffington chalk white horse figure which dates back to the Bronze Age is ‘losing weight’ and needs ‘fattening up’, National Trust experts warn

  • The Bronze Age era Uffington White Horse is Britain’s most ancient hill-carving 
  • The mysterious chalk carving has suffered from shrinkage since the 1980s 

Britain’s most ancient hill-carving – the Uffington White Horse – needs fattening up due to be eroded by bad weather, archaeologists have warned.   

New tests have proven the mysterious chalk carving, that was cut into a hill in Oxfordshire during the Bronze Age, has suffered from ‘shrinkage’ since the 1980s, the National Trust experts said. 

The mysterious artwork measures 111-metres long from head to tail and depicts a white horse galloping through the hills near the tiny Oxfordshire village of Uffington.

The ancient horse, which was first carved out around 3,000 years ago, has been maintained for centuries by local people, who have helped ensure the striking figure’s survival. 

Now, a team of volunteers, supervised by expert archaeologists, plans to reverse the gradual ‘reduction’ that the enigmatic piece of art has suffered by restoring the figure to its former glory.

The Uffington White Horse was created in the Bronze Age and is Britain’s oldest hill carving

The prehistoric piece of art, which lies near the site of an Iron Age hillfort, is believed to have been created 1380 BC and 550 BC, during the either later Bronze Age or the early iron Age.

READ MORE: Stone Age steed or fiery dragon? Exploring the mysterious Vale of the White Horse

According to English Heritage, the Uffington White Horse may have been a territorial marker or fertility symbol, although its original purpose remains unknown.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the chalk figure sat at the centre of a midsummer ‘scouring festival’ that saw local people clean the carving and enjoy a celebratory feast every seven years.  

In 1985, the chalk figure featured in the video for Kate Bush’s single ‘Cloudbusting’ after she soared to fame in 1978 with her debut ‘Wuthering Heights’ at just 26-years-old. 

But the National Trust, which looks after the Uffington White Horse, says the figure needs fattening up because it has eroded in bad weather which has shrunk its head and neck since the 1980s.

Having studied past drawings and photos, the National Trust and Oxford Archaeology say urgent action is now needed.

To prove it, a series of small archaeological trenches, removing only the turf, were dug during the Trust’s annual scouring and re-chalking of the horse.

National Trust archaeologist Adrian Cox said: ‘The investigations produced a very useful set of results.

‘The Uffington White Horse is set in a dramatic landscape, shaped by nature and by people through time, and this is a hugely important chalk figure, partly because it is the oldest scientifically-dated example in Britain, dating back to the late Bronze Age.

The ancient picture of a horse is carved into a hill near the Oxfordshire village of Uffington

Experts have said the hill carving needs fattening up due to having suffered shrinkage since the 1980s

‘Through the efforts of generations of local people, it has been cared for and has survived as an iconic feature of this amazing landscape.

‘While it has been maintained in a similar form for centuries, we suspected there had been a gradual reduction since the 1980s in the width of certain features, such as the horse’s head and neck.

‘The results of our new research show that this is indeed the case.

‘The turf has been replaced and we will now draw up plans to carefully reverse the recent shrinkage and restore its original outline, all under close archaeological supervision.’

The archaeological study ran in parallel with the National Trust’s annual scouring of the horse.

‘Volunteers braved a variety of weather conditions to carry out this important work, while having a lot of fun in the process.

‘It gave us a great opportunity to talk with local people and visitors alike about the significance of White Horse Hill, and I loved chatting about the archaeology. Thank you to everyone who came to see the archaeology in action.’

There will be another opportunity to get hands on with the age-old tradition of re-chalking the White Horse on August 27 and August 28.

Protective gloves and a hammer will be provided for volunteers to pound the chalk into the original outline of the horse.

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