The Uffington Sun-Horse

The Uffington White Horse’, writes Josh Pollard FSA in the April Antiquity, ‘is Europe’s only confirmed prehistoric hill-figure or geoglyph, and is among the oldest anywhere in the world.’ The horse was the subject of a paper by Stuart Piggott FSA (also in Antiquity, in 1931) in which he compared its outline to figures in Iron Age art, and concluded that it was ‘a monument constructed at the end of the Early Iron Age, probably in the first century B.C. Beyond this we can be sure of nothing.’

That was more or less how it stayed, until English Heritage, the National Trust and the Oxford Archaeological Unit, led by David Miles FSA, conducted geophysical survey and excavation on the hill in the 1990s. They found that Peter Grimes FSA had done a small excavation at the horse during the war, which had never been published. The records showed that the horse was not created by cutting away the turf to expose natural chalk, as had been assumed, but with a metre-deep trench. Optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL) of layers from new excavation of this trench produced the surprising date for the horse’s creation, and still the only one that is more than guesswork, of between 1380 and 550 BC. The dating was done by Julie Rees-Jones and Mike Tite FSA at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art in Oxford, advised by Martin Aitken FSA, who died only a few days ago (see Fellows Remembered below).

Pollard brings nothing new to the question of the horse’s date, but rather to its meaning and purpose, which have been surprisingly little discussed. It was, he suggests, a sun-horse: ‘an effigy that facilitated the diurnal movement of the sun through the sky.’ The horse god would come to life when the sun crossed the horizon low behind it. Scandinavian metalwork of the same era appears to indicate a horse, which had not long joined the range of domesticated animals in north-west Europe, dragging the sun across the sky in a chariot or cart. Figured large over the landscape, says Pollard, the Uffington sun-horse was the active focus of a series of local landmarks, including three hillforts.

From SALON the Society of Antiquaries Online Newsletter 20th June 2017