A month ago I stood atop a long barrow on White Horse Hill, with the grass covered chalk walls of Uffington Castle behind me, the galloping Uffington White Horse below me, and pondered a question for which there is no answer. What makes a landscape sacred?
Is sacred the right word? Mystic perhaps. What makes certain places cry out to be treated with reverence, to inspire the imagination of the soul?
If you keep a good step, you can probably walk from Uffington to Avebury and its stone circles and ancient wonders in a day or so. If you keep to the high ground, the tops of the ridges you’ll find yourself at times on the Ridgway, now a national trail, dedicated in 1972. But its origins are ancient.
The idea is simple – by keeping to the tops of the ridges which stretch across southwest England, you avoid the mess and the hassle of walking below … no crossing rivers or heavy forests to get lost in and of course, the mud of Britain’s incessant rain. These highlands were above the tree line, often on a bed of chalk, which is more agreeable to walk on than mud.
You can see for miles, so it’s harder to be taken by surprise. They were taking these routes five thousand years ago, and for millennia they were some of the most important arteries flowing through the countryside.
Some of the earliest man made landmarks along the Ridgeway were the mounds, barrows and long barrows built for the dead. These weren’t wholesale cemeteries, but private tombs for a chosen few. It was in the shadow of these tombs and the Ridgway itself that Avebury, the largest of Britain’s stone circles was built.
It’s believed that the significance of Avebury as a location begins with the causeway enclosure atop Windmill Hill. Causeway enclosures typically consist of concentric ditches in a roughly circular pattern, with an earthwork bank. Crossing these circles are wide causeways, hence the name.
These are large ditches, and along with the chalk and soil, they mixed the bones of their ancestors, creating a connection between a people and the land.
Long barrows came along about the same time as causeway enclosures. West Kennet Long Barrow at Avebury coincides with the activities at Windmill Hill. Those activities involved the dead, indeed could have been in large part dedicated to their ancestors. It’s thought that the bones from West Kennet were brought to Windmill Hill for these celebrations.
West Kennet Long Barrow was in use in one way or another for almost a thousand years. In that time, about 400 years after its construction, they started work on Stonehenge. Just after that they started building down below what is now Avebury circle and henge. It was an ambitious project and they kept coming up with new ideas, so it was over 600 years in construction.
But it all started with mounds and the dead.
+ + +
White Horse Hill
I’m walking the Ridgway between the neolithic long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy, climbing up towards Uffington Castle. Wayland’s Smity is roughly the same age as West Kennet Long Barrow, also with a megalithic forecourt, and one of the earliest features of landscape around White Horse Hill.
The trail is fairly wide and well packed, likely more so than in ancient history. These neolithic highways were still in use through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, through the dark ages, and the medieval era. Eventually, during the seventeenth century, banks were added, hedges were planted alongside much of their routes, enclosing the walkway to prevent livestock from getting into the fields.
In the earliest days, the lands below the paths would have been wooded, with the ridges rising above. Today I’m walking up towards one of those ridges, the highest spot in Oxfordshire. It’s raining, or misting perhaps. As you climb it’s hard to tell which because of the wind. Though not incredibly steep, it’s steep enough and I’m cursing that first cigarette that found its way between my lips. Coming from the flatlands of America, and being an idiot and smoking far too long, it’s a curse I utter frequently in Britain.
At the top of this ridge is Uffington Castle. When you hear the name you think stone, but Uffington Castle is a hillfort. HIllforts are typically found on the high ground, along the ridges which is why they’re frequently encountered along the Ridgway. These often starting coming about late in the Bronze Age or even the Iron Age. By this time the great complexes of Avebury and Stonehenge were abandoned.
At the beginning of the modern age, many of these locations were forgotten almost entirely.
A henge has nothing to do with stones. It’s an easy mistake for Americans because most, typically all of our knowledge of the word comes from Stonehenge. Aliens built it, yes?
A henge is a circular walled enclosure, built up of dirt or chalk, with a ditch on the inside of the enclosure. It’s thought that the ditch being on the inside meant that it wasn’t constructed for defensive purposes. A defensive structure would be more effective with the ditch on the outside, which is what you find with hillforts. So it was that hillforts were believed to be defensive in nature, though over time archaeologist and sociologists have shown that in reality, some had little or no defensive purpose.
Uffington Castle began its life as a causeway, another sign on the ancient landscape. It’s not known whether this causeway was enclosed, or ran for some distance, perhaps to Wayland Smithy or beyond. Next to the causeway was a long barrow, with other smaller barrows in the vicinity.
This was in the Neolithic period, which predated the Bronze age. It’s impossible to know exactly what something like a causeway was intended to be used for. What we do know however, is that it took quite a few people, social organization and a good amount of free time to build these things. They didn’t come into existence on a lark.
Imagine a family or small tribe traveling the Ridgeway in the Neolithic period, who aren’t so far advanced from the hunter/gather stage, and have no qualms about taking over land others have already developed. They were bound to be humbled encountering a people who have built a structure that extends for miles. Uffington Castle’s white chalk walls could be seen atop the highlands by their builder’s enemies and was right along the Ridgway.
People would be more likely to want to join the community rather than rape, pillage and plunder. Perhaps in that way, the ancient landmarks were more defensive, in a more subtle way than is commonly believed. The best defense after all, is getting your enemies to become followers. Imagine how appealing having the kind of free time to build something like this would be to a people who are still struggling with day to day existence.
As is often the case, late in the bronze age it was decided to turn this causeway into a hillfort. And as so often the case, this was accomplished in stages.
It was about the time of the building of Uffington Castle, perhaps a bit before, that they had the idea to carve the horse into White Horse Hill.
The Uffington White Horse
‘Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.
Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.
For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know.
The Ballad of the White Horse, from G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Vision of the King’
Britain is know for its hill figures, symbols cut into the highlands to be seen for miles. Cut into the grass exposing the chalk beneath, these symbols are as enigmatic as they are iconic. From the somewhat shocking Cerne Abbas Giant, to the Long Man of Wilmington, and the horses of Wiltshire and beyond, it’s easy to imagine that these have been in place since prehistory. The reality is most were created during recorded history with some notable exceptions.
One such exception is the White Horse of Uffington, the oldest of Britain’s hill figures. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 years old and the length of a football field. It can be seen clearly from 20 miles away, but it’s somewhat of a mystery, in that this figure seems to be less intended to be seen from the ground, but instead, skirting the top of the hillside, it best seen from above.
Curious of course, as the people who built it had no way of seeing from above, best appreciated by the skylarks and buzzards circling overhead. To this day, nobody knows how these people could create this form, which can only truly be seen from miles away.
There are those that make the case that time and erosion have caused the horse to actually slip up the hill, and perhaps it was more visible at its creation. It’s certainly changed its appearance a bit. Aerial photography is supposed to show that it once bore more a resemblance to real horse than the stylized design we see now.
Of course there’s magic related to the White Horse. Stand in the eye and spin around three times as the clock turns while making a wish, and your wish will come true. Workers repairing the horse in the 1950s reported their foreman stood on a hill a quarter mile away to give suggestions, and was able to speak in a normal voice, which then carried along the hillside to the workers.
And at night, the White Horse and its foal come down from the hill and grazes in the Manger below.
Standing atop the barrow in my memory once more, I look down at the semi circular indention in the hillside below me. This is the Manger, a natural formation. On the western wing you have the Giant’s Stairs, terraces cut into the hillside that were the product of Ice Age shenanigans. Below me to my right is Dragon’s Hill, a natural formation but with a curiously flat top, famous in folklore, and might have been sculpted a bit by early man.
Once more I’m hit by the thought that I’m standing in a sacred place, and once more I’m reminded, it all started with the dead, the bones and the barrows.
This long barrow isn’t as elegant as Wayland’s Smithy, no sarsen stones along it sides, no megaliths guarding its entrance. Its only decorations now are the wild orchids that pop up occasionally on the grass at White Horse Hill, and the variety of butterflies which make their home there. It’s aligned northwest to southwest, is about 115 foot long and 30 foot wide, and it’s only about a foot tall. The ditches which ran along its side are long filled in, In the center is a depression from an excavation in 1857. During that trip into the mound, a cremation urn was found. All in all, about 46 skeletons were located, from various times throughout history.
After Uffington Castle was abandoned, the Romans seemed to have used it for a base. They also used the long barrow to bury their dead. Five of those burials had coins in their mouth, which dates them to late in the late Roman period. They filled the barrow with their dead, and an unknown amount of the ground around it as well. Many of the skeletons were found to be missing heads in later excavations, but it’s not known if those heads were taken in the previous dig.
There’s also evidence that the barrow was used during the Saxon period as well.
The ancient causeway seemed to terminate here at the long barrow, and it was here late in the late Bronze Age, sixth or seventh century BC, that the people of the area built the first phase of the hillfort, likely some time after the White Horse of Uffington was scoured into the hillside below.
That white horse is 360 foot long and stands 160 foot tall. It’s dug into the chalk of the hillside three foot deep, ten foot wide, and was probably picked out by wooden spades and antler picks. It was then filled in with chalk and rubble. Against the green of the hillside, visible for so many miles, it spoke out to anyone who could see it, “here are people.”
Beyond that, no one can say for sure what it means.
“Gerllaw tref Abinton y mae mynydd ac eilun march arno a gwyn ydiw. Ni thyf dim arno.” (Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.)
Llyfr Coch Herbiest, The Red Book of Herbiest, 1375–1425
Some argue the Uffington White Horse marked the boundary, or at least the territory of a tribe, in particular the local Belgae tribe. Others point to the Dobunni, as the land below was a sort of no man’s land between their territory and Altrebates.
Its distinctive shape is similar to celtic coins which were in use prior to the Romans invading Britain. These coins were associated with Epona, a pre Christian goddess known in Celtic Britain as Rhiannon, connected to horses, and who represented fertility, healing and death.
Others connect it with sun worshippers and the belief that the sun was helped in its travels by a horse drawn chariot. It’s said that in midwinter the sun overtakes the White Horse of Uffington.
That it be dedicated to a sun god, dwelling above, or even Belenus who had a connection with horses, would make sense, as the best way to see the white horse is from the sky. So it’s hard to make the argument that it was created for a deity above, instead of those on the ground.
Others make the case that it’s not a horse at all, but a saber toothed cat, a dog or the most popular, a dragon.
On Dragon Hill below me, there’s a curious white patch on the flat surface of its flat top. It’s said that no grass grows there, and geologists agree, though can’t come up with a definitive answer for why.
For that we turn to folklore and Christians get in on the story. Dragon’s Hill is one of many sites in Britain which lay claim to where St. George had his famous duel with the dragon. It’s said that when he drove his sword into dragon’s breast, its blood spilling onto the ground bleached it white, and no grass will grow there ever again.
Another legend has it that Uther Pendragon died atop the hill fighting the Saxons,
But the best explanation for the bald patch is the high level of potash on top of the hill, where there is evidence that it was used quite often in the dim and distant past for ritual fires and sacrifices. Indeed, even into the Victorian era, pagans were using the hill for their ceremonies from the 17th to 19th centuries, culminating in 1857.
Behind me looms the banks of Uffington Castle. HIllforts are often imposing, even seen from a distance. There are less than a hundred of then across Great Britain, and are typically found on the southern part of the island. Like Uffington which started as a causeway, most had other uses before being converted into the basic designs we see now. Most were built in a 500 year period which ended around the end of the first century AD, which makes Uffington Castle one of the older hillforts.
The original Uffington Castle was a single circuit with entrances on the east and west side. This phase of construction was likely between 8-900 BC. It fell into disrepair somewhat rapidly, and was abandoned.
About four centuries later construction began again, with the ramparts being built up to a considerable height, and the ditch widened and deepened. The walls themselves would have been kept cleared of grass, and the white chalk would have been quite imposing and visible for miles. The inside of the walls were braced with timber and sarsen stone and the eastern entrance was blocked up.
There was also a wooden structure built about this time outside the walls, now only identifiable by post holes.
Archaeology can only do so much to identify what took place inside these enclosures. It was originally thought that hillforts were for defensive purposes, and that the insides would have been teeming with life. It’s true that some show signs of being used extensively. Trade was beginning to pick up as the agrarian lifestyle was forming communities. It was also at this time that skilled trades were becoming more common, metal working for instance during the Bronze and Iron ages, and in some cases hill forts were where these skilled laborers plied their trade, where commodities were brought to be bought and sold.
Others, such as Uffington Castle show very little signs of use, certainly very little occupational use. It’s now believed that these enclosures were used for rituals as well as celebrations.
I can’t help but wonder, given the relationship between the dead and their celebrations in the Neolithic period, how the memory was kept alive into the Bronze and Iron ages? Or did it spring up again after a period of absence? If so, that means the people of these later ages were able to identify the marks on the landscape as sacred. Whereas scholars from our own era mistook the later hillforts dedicated to ritual and celebrations, as defensive.
What crucial bit of visual knowledge did we lose, that leaves us unable to see the works of the past for what they were? The people of Bronze age Uffington were able to look at the signs on the earth and determine this was a holy place. When abandoned then rebuilt in the Iron age, the memory of this place was still intact, despite the fact that several generations had passed and there was no written record.
It was abandoned again in the middle Iron age and taken up by the Romans a century or so later. They made modifications which possibly included a temple. Others have pointed out that it could have been an open air temple on Dragon Hill. Regardless, the Romans were from a different culture altogether, but still recognized the sanctity of the place.
When the Saxons took over many generations later, they named the Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow below Uffington Castle for one of their gods.
Sometime between then and now, we lost the ability to read the signs.
Or was it lost? Pagans held rituals on Dragon Hill into the Victorian Era. Perhaps when it comes to identifying the sacred, or finding the purpose behind an ancient site whose purpose is long ago forgotten, these things are best done by non scholars, who might see the landscape with the right kind of vision.
Or perhaps folklore holds the keys to understanding, if we open our minds up enough to see it for what it is, storytelling with a grain of truth.
What of the tale that the horse flies across the sky to be reshod by the ancient god and ironsmith Wayland at his long barrow? Is this the Saxons identifying the horse as one who belongs in the sky, as an ancient belief in sun gods would indicate?
For who knows how long, people from the area gathered on White Horse Hill for a ritual known as the scouring of the horse. Within ten or fifteen years of neglect, the horse disappears. So every seven years the people would gather to clean and rechalk the figure. At times there were thousands of people participating in the event. They held fairs to go along with the scouring within the walls of Uffington Castle. The debris left from these later festivals bears a startling resemblance to the type of debris left after the ancient ceremonies.
The trappings of the ritual and the fair changed over time no doubt, but the concept likely has been there since the Uffington White Horse was first carved into the hill. When it was occupied by the Romans, the locals were still climbing the hill to keep the horse tidy.
Perhaps someday, some crackpot will look at a place like Uffington, Avebury, Stonehenge or countless other ancient mysteries and see the truth. Perhaps they already have, and we’re still waiting on the science necessary to prove it. Maybe it’s not archaeology that will finally solve these mysteries, but instead, visions.
And for that we can always be hopeful, for three thousand years after a people deemed the Uffington landscape sacred, it still inspires visions.