Uffington White Horse (aerial view)
Image credit: USGS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a teenager, I once carved my initials and those of my girlfriend into a tree, something I thought of at the time as being a permanent statement of our eternal devotion to each other. When we broke up a year later, I felt obliged to return to the tree, put an X through our initials, and add the words “Null and Void.” The next time I went to find the tree, a number of years after that, it was gone. My guess is that the tree was so ashamed at having been defaced with self-contradictory graffiti that it simply fell over in an act of suicidal protest.

The urge to leave one’s mark on the landscape—whether in a tree, a newly poured sidewalk, or the wall of a cave—goes way, way back. One rather unusual form of ancient markings is found in the picturesque, pastoral setting of rural England. About a 30-minute drive from the city of Oxford is a large area covered with the rolling green hills and herds of grazing sheep that have found their way into countless works of literature and film. Beneath the veneer of grass and soil, some of these hills are made of chalk. And over the millennia, the landscape has become dotted with at least 50 large images made by carving through the top layers of earth to expose the chalk beneath. Of these, about a dozen are pictures of horses, and of the horse carvings, the oldest and best known is the Uffington White Horse.

A Horse of a Different Color

Although less famous than, say, Stonehenge, the Uffington White Horse ranks right up there among ancient and inexplicable English monuments. It is a highly stylized outline of a horse—recognizable, but not as well-defined as the other, more solid horse images. The carving is about 374 feet (113m) long, with the lines forming it ranging in width from about 5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters). This particular carving doesn’t actually go all the way through the crust to the chalk beneath; instead, a relatively shallow trench was dug and filled in with chalk to make it almost flush with the surface.

The Uffington White Horse has the distinction of being the largest of Britain’s horse carvings (measured from head to tail). It’s also one of only four such horses facing to the right, though no one knows for sure the significance of the horse’s direction, if any. And it’s the oldest horse carving, meaning it may have served as a prototype for the others.

This Old Horse

Scientists have determined that the carving is about 3,000 years old (give or take a few centuries), and though it is mentioned in literature dating back to the 11th century, its original purpose—along with the identity of its creators—is uncertain. It may have been a religious symbol, a monument to a victory in battle, a territory marker, or simply (perish the thought) a giant piece of abstract art. Although it has been referred to as a “horse” for at least 1,000 years, there are some who believe it was intended to represent a dragon. If so, then dragons must have been much more horse-shaped in those days. In any case, the carving has been well tended over the centuries. Every seven years, weeds are removed and the outline smoothed to maintain its original size and shape.

One of the most interesting things about the Uffington White Horse is that the only place to get a good view of the whole thing is from the sky above—putting it in the company of the Marree Man in Australia and the Nazca Lines in Peru. There are a few spots several miles away that provide a fair view of most of the outline, but the local topography is such that there is just no vantage point from which you can get a good view of the whole horse. This has, predictably, led some people to speculate that it was created as a signal to UFOs, although what exactly it would signify is a bit unclear (“Horses for sale—next exit”?). Be that as it may, this peculiarity of perspective must have made it a challenge to carve, and it makes the horse’s original purpose all the more mysterious.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 19, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on July 28, 2004.