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Vanir
Tuesday, June 21st, 2005, 10:07 AM
Inexhaustible symbols cut into chalk
New dating methods are shedding light on the mysteries of hill-figures, writes Paul Newman

Why did people carve the shapes of enormous men and horses into the chalk hillsides of southern England? In ancient times, one assumes these figures had a religious or totemistic signifance, connected to a cultural ethos that we can only guess at now by following scattered clues.

Yet the craze continued well into the modern era. Why did people do it? Perhaps they could think of no better way to spend their time. Our communal pleasures, after all, like gala days, sports days and carnivals, have a kind of exuberant senselessness about them. The cutting of a hill-figure similarly demands a lively co-ordinated effort. Periods of intense digging and dumping chalk waste are followed by intervals where beer, sandwiches and laughter are passed around.

In creating such an artefact, a community is engraving its signature on the land. Folk in Wiltshire and Dorset can look upon their white horses knowing that an ancestor helped carve it. And for what? - a shared memory, a legacy that will gallop down the centuries and still invoke the capacity to wonder?

In recent times, archaeology has turned its attention to these figures. They are no longer seen as isolated gestures but as integral to the landscape. The small Iron Age enclosure above the Cerne Giant's head is said to bear a direct relationship to the figure, as is St Augustine's Well at the foot of Giant Hill. Similarly the Uffington Horse is coupled with the flat-topped spur of Dragon Hill and the chambered mound of Wayland's Smithy. The Long Man has been related to Windhover burial mound and other features in the Neolithic landscape. This method is both informative and fallible. In any town centre, a medieval church can be seen nudging up to a building society office or a public convenience. But they are unintentional juxtapositions whose sole relationship is that of proximity. Probably the most renowned carving is the Uffington Horse in Oxfordshire. It is, artistically speaking, a triumph of imaginative omission. The lines that define it are landscape lines; they curve and melt into the greens and browns of scarp, dip and glacial terrace. White Horse Hill is crowned by Uffington Castle, a double-walled hillfort dating from the 7th century BC. Many think that its occupants carved the Horse as a tribal totem or ensign.

The status of the Horse as a mysterious dateless artefact, not provably Bronze Age, Iron Age or Saxon, was challenged in 1995 by Optical Stimulated Luminescence or OSL. The technique of silt-dating relies on periods of neglect when the trenched outlines of hill-figures become overgrown and fill with soil. It is essential to locate an early cut or trench, so that a layer of `original' soil can be tested to determine when it was last exposed to sunlight.

With this in mind, an old cutting was opened by the Oxford Archaeological Unit in the Horses's beak. Successive layers of `beaks' - some over a metre longer than the present projection - were traced, and a trench through the body showed that it had once been a metre or so wider, but never strikingly different from its present design. The angle of the body had changed, climbing the hill over the centuries, so it now occupied the flat upper slope and was less visible from a distance. Samples taken from between two of the lower layers of the body, and from another cut near the base, produced three dates of approximately 1400-600BC, indicating a Late Bronze Age origin.

When published, the figures raised a few eyebrows. The Iron Age origins of the Horse had become official. To some, the Horse seems so typical of La Tène art that a Bronze Age dating de-stabilised some widely held cultural assumptions.

Another well-known horse is at Westbury in Wiltshire. This is a slightly wooden and formal-looking horse, like a docile creature staring at you over a farmer's fence. But its setting, on the slope of Bratton Camp, is impressive and tradition ascribes it to King Alfred's victory over the Danes at Ethandune. The Horse is, if you like, a badge of victory. But the present creature is the result of drastic cosmetic surgery performed in 1778 on an older, sag-bellied beast, of pathetic appearance, with a tail resembling a dolphin's and a large ringed eye. So now the debate still rages: how old was the original beast? Was it a cousin of the weird white horse of Uffington?

None of the other Wiltshire horses presents a historical enigma. The elegant horse at Alton Barnes was cut by a tenant of Manor Farm, Mr Robert Pile, in 1812. The apologetic-looking Marlborough Horse was cut by schoolboys in 1804, and the giraffe-necked, originally glass-eyed Cherhill charger by Dr Christopher Alsop in 1780. Standing about two hundreds yards from the top of Labour-in-Vain hill, he boomed instructions through a megaphone to his workforce, ordering them to move around until a credibly equine shape was achieved and then the turf was pared away.

Even more than the horses, hill-figures of human form capture the imagination. Of these the Cerne Giant of Dorset is the most famous, on account of his swaggering immodesty. An enlargement occurred when the navel became overgrown and was, in the subsequent scouring, mistakenly identified as the tip of the penis. About three years ago, I attended a conference at Cerne in which academics pored over the chalk shaft of the 30ft penis, charting any enlargement or diminishment down the centuries. Poets attended the event, too, exposing many a raunchy stanza to the naked ear.

Many scholars regard the Giant as a Romano-British portrait of Hercules. Others disagree. The Bristol historian Ronald Hutton argues that if the Giant is pre-medieval, why is there no allusion to him in medieval documents relating to Cerne Abbey? The earliest reference occurs in the parish records of 1694 in which the sum of `3 shillings' is put aside for `cutting' or restoring the outline. Hutton goes on to suggest that the Giant may be a 17th century fake. The Restoration was renowned for filth and frolics - what better example than a naked giant impudently disporting himself! Unfortunately, Hutton's complaint about the lack of documentation strangulates his own thesis. If a prominent landowner created such a gigantic, comical obscenity in the 17th century, why do we find no mention in any of the thousands of diaries, letters and gossipy broadsheets of the period?

Evidence from soil probes indicates what we see today is not the complete portrait. Various irregularities beneath the left wrist suggest the Giant might be holding something. This is the thesis of historian Rodney Castleden, who conducted a resistivity test on the figure a few years ago. The readings were fed into a computer and, eventually, a pattern swelled up on the monitor - namely, a severed head with dangling dreadlocks and death-set eyes. The Cerne Giant may therefore be a naked fighting-man brandishing his spoils dating from as early as 500BC.

But no sooner does this challenging interpretation emerge than another appears. The latest - advanced by the historian Joe Bettey - identifies the Giant as a 17th century lampoon of Oliver Cromwell. He claims to have unearthed some correspondence of the Dorset historian, the Reverend Hutchins, in which this suggestion is raised.

The Long Man of Wilmington, Sussex, offers even fewer clues to his identity. Only his staves vaguely speak of something: a traveller, a sage, a magus - all these suggestions have been advanced. Like most of the hill-figures, he is vaguely evocative of many things in general but nothing in particular. His staves are 231 and 235 feet high, and it has been claimed that he is Europe's largest representation of the human form (the sexless giant of the Millennium Dome will be a pygmy by comparison).

Until recently the earliest known sketch was made by Sir William Burrell in 1776, showing a clothed, shambling figure holding a rake in his right hand and a scythe in his left. However, in 1993, a new drawing was found on a map at Chatsworth House dating from 1710. This sketches a slightly flabby figure with a conical head and bulges where his ears should be. Eyes, nose and mouth are marked; kneecaps and pectorals are even hinted at faintly. The posture holds a hint of challenge or confrontation. There is more of the warrior about him than the farmer or haymaker and the staves are significantly longer.

In the view of the late Christopher Hawkes (1967), the rake and scythe were the remnants of Christian crosses imposed on the original spearheads of Odin in much the same way as early medieval saints made their marks on the standing stones of prehistory. He believed that a resemblance to the Long Man was found in the Finglesham belt-buckle showing a Viking warrior in ceremonial attire.

In a visionary interpretation, however, Rodney Castleden has restored the Neolithic case. He sees the Long Man as the sun-god opening the dawn portals and letting the ripening light flood through.

I have summarised several theories because they underline a basic point about these carvings. Hill-figures possess inexhaustible symbolic significance. They refuse to be fixed to a century or epoch or specific intention. They trigger the romantic dreamer in us all. Some scholars glory in this confusion. But many think it is no bad thing that the technology is available to narrow the time band. In the next few years, I have little doubt that OSL will probe the anatomies of other figures, and I for one will enjoy having the clay washed from my eyes as long-concealed silts yield their secrets.

A new edition of Paul Newman's book on hill-figures, Lost Gods of Albion, was recently published by Sutton.
Source (http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba41/ba41feat.html)