Hill figure

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Cerne Abbas Giant chalk figure, near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. Made by a turf-cut.

A hill figure is a large visual representation created by cutting into a steep hillside and revealing the underlying geology. It is a type of geoglyph usually designed to be seen from afar rather than above. In some cases trenches are dug and rubble made from material brighter than the natural bedrock is placed into them. The new material is often chalk, a soft and white form of limestone, leading to the alternative name of chalk figure for this form of art.

Ancient hill figures cut in grass are especially a phenomenon in England: examples include the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Uffington White Horse, the Long Man of Wilmington, as well as the "lost" carvings at Cambridge, Oxford and Plymouth Hoe. From the 18th century onwards, many further ones were added.

History[edit]

The creation of hill figures has been practised since prehistory and can include human and animal forms (cutting horses is known, as well as more abstract symbols and, in the modern era, advertising brands.

The reasons for the creation for the figures are varied and obscure. The Uffington Horse probably held political significance, since the figure dominates the valley below. It probably dates to the British Iron Age since coins have been found exhibiting the symbol. The Cerne Abbas Giant might have been a work of political satire.[1] Wiltshire is a county with a large number of White Horses; 14 have been recorded.[2] The figures are usually created by the cutting away of the top layer of relatively poor soil on suitable hillsides. This exposes the white chalk beneath, which contrasts well with the short green hill grass, and the image is clearly visible for a considerable distance. Despite most of the figures being of great age, many are relatively new. Devizes in Wiltshire created a large white horse for the 2000 Millennium celebrations and in October 2009 celebrated this with an aerial photo of volunteers making the figure 10 for an aerial photo.[3]

Figures must be maintained to remain visible, and local people often work regularly to restore or maintain a local landmark, though, two cuttings of military badges at Sutton Mandeville, Wiltshire, are becoming lost. A map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne, Wiltshire, was lost in 2005.

Similar pictures exist elsewhere in the world, notably the far larger Nazca Lines in Peru, which are on flat land but visible from hills in the area. These were made in desert terrain, however, not on grassy hillsides and so have not become overgrown, and thus have survived much longer without maintenance.

"Gigantotomy" and "Leucippotomy"[edit]

In 1949, Morris Marples invented the words "leucippotomy" and "gigantotomy".[4][5] Morris wrote that he "half-humorously ventured to use leucippotomy for the cutting of white horses and gigantotomy for the cutting of giants on rare occasions".[6] Neither word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, and rarely in the popular press.[7]

Human Figures[edit]

While presumed to be of prehistoric origin, surviving examples may have been created only within the last four hundred years.[8] Of these giants only two survive: one near the village of Cerne Abbas, to the north of Dorchester, in Dorset and one at Wilmington, Long Man civil parish in the Wealden District of East Sussex. Examples located at Oxford, Cambridge, and on Plymouth Hoe can no longer be seen with the naked eye.[8][9][10]

The Osmington White Horse caries a rider (King George III) but is not considered an example of gigantotomy due to the name of the figure referring to the horse.

Cerne Abbas Giant[edit]

The Cerne Abbas Giant, also referred to as the "Rude Man" or the "Rude Giant", is a hill figure of a giant naked man 180 ft (55 m) high, 167 ft (51 m) wide[11] figure is carved into the side of a steep hill, and is best viewed from the opposite side of the valley or from the air. The carving is formed by a trench 12 in (30 cm) wide,[11] and about the same depth, which has been cut through grass and earth into the underlying chalk. In his right hand the giant holds a knobbled club 120 ft (37 m) in length.[11]

Its history cannot be traced back further than the late 17th century, making an origin during the Celtic, Roman or even Early Medieval periods difficult to prove. Above and to the right of the Giant's head is an earthwork known as the "Trendle", or "Frying Pan". Medieval writings refer to this location as "Trendle Hill", but make no mention of the giant, leading to the conclusion that it was probably only carved about 400 years ago. In contrast, the Uffington White Horse — an unquestionably prehistoric hill figure on the Berkshire Downs — was noticed and recorded by medieval authors.[11][12]

In 2008, overgrowth forced a re-chalking of the giant,[13] with 17 tonnes of new chalk being poured in and tamped down by hand.[14]

Long Man of Wilmington[edit]

The Long Man of Wilmington seen from a distance

The Long Man of Wilmington is a located on one of the steep slopes of Windover Hill, six miles (9.6 km) northwest of Eastbourne. The figure is 227 feet (69 m) tall and designed to look in proportion when viewed from below, and is shown holding two staves. The earliest record was made by the surveyor John Rowley in the year 1710. This drawing suggests that the original figure was a shadow or indentation in the grass, rather than the solid outline of a human figure. The staves were not depicted as a rake and scythe as was once thought, and the head was a helmet shape. Sir William Borrow's drawing of 1766 shows the figure holding a rake and a scythe, both shorter than the staves.[15]

Before 1874, the Long Man's outline was only visible in certain light conditions as a different shade in the hillside grass, or after a light fall of snow. In that year an antiquarian marked out the outline with yellow bricks, later cemented together. It has been claimed that the 'restoration' process distorted the position of the feet, an assertion backed up by several who had been familiar with the figure before 1874, and also by later resistivity surveys.[16] It has also been suggested that it removed the Long Man's genitalia, though there is no historical or archaeological evidence which supports that claim.[15][17] A wide range of dates of origin have been proposed for the Long Man, but more recent archaeological work done by the University of Reading suggests that the figure dates from the 16th or 17th century AD.[18]

Plymouth Hoe giants[edit]

Until the early 17th century large outline images of the two giants, perhaps Gog and Magog (or Goemagot and Corineus) had for a long time been cut into the turf of Plymouth Hoe exposing the white limestone beneath.[19] An early and explicit reference was made to them by Richard Carew in 1602.[20] At one time these figures were periodically re-cut and cleaned but no trace of them remains today.[19][21]

Gog Magog Hills[edit]

The dowser and archaeologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge claimed to have discovered a group of three hidden chalk carvings in the Gog Magog Hills about three miles south of Cambridge. He described these figures buried under the surface of the hills as representing a sun god, a moon goddess and a war god. This alleged discovery was described at length in his book Gogmagog: The Buried gods but is not widely accepted.[22]

Firle Corn[edit]

Firle Corn in Firle, Sussex is a nearly-lost hill figure whose existence can be seen by infrared photography. Now looking more like a small ear of corn or a strange weapon than a human figure, there is a legend suggesting that a giant called Gill was once cut on this same hill and that he was considered an adversary of the Long Man of Wilmington not far away.[23] According to one story, the giant on Firle Beacon threw his hammer at the Wilmington giant and killed him, and that the figure on the hillside marks the place where his body fell.[24]

Homer Simpson[edit]

As a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons Movie on 16 July 2007, a giant Homer Simpson brandishing a doughnut was outlined in water-based biodegradable paint to the left of the Cerne Abbas Giant. This act angered local neopagans, who pledged to perform rain magic to wash the figure away. On seeing the headline "Simpsons upset Pagans", producer Al Jean remarked, "This is the last religion we can possibly upset. Now we've got all of 'em".[25][26]

Horse Figures[edit]

There are 16 known white horse hill figures in the UK, or 17 including the painted one at Cleadon Hills.

The Luzley White Horse, cut in the 1980s, is not completely lost, as some of it can still be seen, although it is no longer maintained.

Eight of the current white horses, and at least five of the lost figures, are in Wiltshire. The white horse is now generally considered a symbol of Wiltshire. An 1872 sketch of the Cherhill White Horse was later featured in the unofficial flag of Wiltshire, the White Horse Flag. It was designed after its designer, Chrys Fear, decided the white horse symbol had a stronger connection to Wiltshire than the Great Bustard on the official flag. Additionally, for the third millennium, it was proposed that a white horse should feature on one of the surrounding hills in Devizes (It became the Devizes Millennium White Horse). Smaller white horses now feature in Wiltshire, such as a replica of the Devizes White Horse in a Devizes primary school and two proposed white horses to feature on a roundabout in Marlborough (both towns already have larger white horses.) Liddington Hill near Swindon is the latest location in Wiltshire to have a proposed white horse, in the early 2000s, although the idea was abandoned.

Construction[edit]

Until recently, there were only three used ways to construct white horses, and all hill figures of that matter

  • The stripping method, where the soil is thin, the turf, or soil, is stripped away to expose the chalk underneath. To carve horses this way produces quick results but the horse would need very regular maintenance, as it would become easily overgrown. This was a practice for hill figures but not as much horses. The Laverstock Panda in Laverstock near Salisbury, Wiltshire was constructed this way in 1968 and is now lost. Traces of figures of this type are not usually found after the figure is overgrown.
  • The method known as covering is the most simple way to construct, done by placing rocks on top of the turf. This method is normally used when there is no underlying chalk, the chalk is deep or if the figure needs to be constructed quickly (perhaps due to tools not being available). The maintenance for these figures is very high. There are several examples done like this, such as the Woolbury White Horse in Hampshire. This method leaves no trace of the figures existence when overgrown, as is the case of the lost Fovant Badges.
  • The Trenching method, which is by far the most common method of hill figure construction. The underlying chalk where some white horses are constructed is not near the surface so a trench is dug and chalk from another site is used to fill the trench. The Uffington White Horse, the most famous white horse worldwide, is the prime example of this method. This was the method originally to be used for the modern Devizes White Horse. This method is invasive in the hillside and allows traces of the figure to be seen even when the figure has been overgrown for many years, an example being the original Devizes White Horse, cut in 1845, lost sometime in the mid 20th century, but traces of it can still be seen.

The biggest problem for white horses and other hill figures is natural vegetation to cover the figures. In the case of chalk figures, natural vegetation encroaches from the edges and can grow on soil washed onto the figure by rain. This can cover a white horse quickly. Water erosion can also be a problem for very steep and gentle slopes, because the rain can wash the chalk off the horse or soil onto the horse. Larger horses are more susceptible to this. This can have two effects, if chalk is washed off the horse, the horse gradually creeps down the slope, or if soil is washed onto the horse, it collects onto the lower edges and the horse actually gradually climbs up the slope. A solution is to provide adequate drainage in order to prevent such damage, either using run off drains, which can be found on Uffington White Horse, or a french ditch.

List of UK figures[edit]

Current figures[edit]

Name County Cutting date
Uffington White Horse Oxfordshire 1000 BC
Westbury White Horse Wiltshire 1778
Cherhill White Horse Wiltshire 1780
Mormond White Horse Aberdeenshire 1790s
Marlborough White Horse Wiltshire 1804
Osmington White Horse Dorset 1808
Alton Barnes White Horse Wiltshire 1812
Hackpen White Horse Wiltshire 1838
Woolbury White Horse Hampshire Before 1846
Kilburn White Horse North Yorkshire 1857
Broad Town White Horse Wiltshire 1864
Cleadon White Horse South Tyneside Before 1887
Litlington White Horse East Sussex 1924
Pewsey White Horse Wiltshire 1937
Devizes White Horse Wiltshire 1999
Heeley White Horse Yorkshire 2000
Folkestone White Horse Kent 2003
Nursteed School White Horse, Devizes Wiltshire 2012
Black Horse of Bush Howe Cumbria  ?

Lost figures[edit]

Name County Cut Lost Replaced by
Old Westbury White Horse Wiltshire 878? Before 1778 New Westbury White Horse
Old Pewsey White Horse Wiltshire 1785 1940 New Pewsey White Horse
Pitstone Hill White Horse Buckinghamshire 1809? Before 1990 -
Old Litlington White Horse Sussex 1838 1924 New Litlington White Horse
Old Devizes White Horse Wiltshire 1845 Before 1999 New Devizes White Horse
Inkpen White Horse Wiltshire 1868? Before 1990 -
Hindhead White Horse Surrey Before 1913 1939 -
Red Horse of Tysoe Warwickshire Before 1607 Remains lost in 1964 -
Red Horse of Tysoe "IV" Warwickshire 1800 1910 -
Rockley White Horse Wiltshire Discovered 1948 After 1950, Before 1990 -
Tan Hill White Horse/Donkey Wiltshire Before 1975 After 1975, Before 1990 -
Luzley White Horse Greater Manchester 1980s 2009 -
Folkestone White Horse mock-up Kent 1999 1999 Folkestone White Horse

Possible figures[edit]

Name County Discovery date Note
Whittlesford White Horse Cambridge 2004 A crop mark resembling a horse discovered 2004, possibly hinting a previous horse was cut here.
Liddington White Horse Wiltshire 2000s Plans for this white horse (including designs) occurred in the 2000s, but the project never happened.
Red Horse of Tysoe "VI" Warwickshire 2010s A forthcoming recutting of the Red Horse of Tysoe at the Vale of the Red Horse.

List of international figures[edit]

Name Location Cut Lost
Bloemfontein White Horse Bloemfontein, South Africa Before 1932 N/A
Cockington Green White Horse Cockington Green, Canberra, Australia 20th or 21st century N/A
Georgia White Horses United States[where?] 20th or 21st century N/A
Juárez White Horse Ciudad Juárez, Mexico Unknown N/A
Riff Country Horse Iourdanan, Morocco Unknown Unknown
Spis Castle Celtic Horse Žehra, Slovakia 2000s N/A
Tunis Horses Tunis, Tunisia Unknown N/A
Waimate White Horse Waimate, New Zealand Late 1960s N/A

The Juárez White Horse is in the style of Uffington.[citation needed]

Lost figures[edit]

Since hill figures must be maintained by the removal of regrown turf, only those that motivate the local populace to look after them survive. Surviving ancient figures all have an associated fair or ceremony that involves maintaining them.[citation needed]

Unmaintained figures gradually fade away.[27] Firle Corn at Firle Beacon, Sussex could be a lost figure. Its existence is suggested by infrared photography. If it is a lost figure, its age is uncertain, and unlikely prehistoric in origin, as only one figure in the UK has been shown to be of this age, the Uffington White Horse.[citation needed]

There have been horses at Devizes and Pewsey, both in Wiltshire, that have been lost but replaced by new ones in the 20th century.[27]

According to the Hillfigure Homepage, there have been 19 military badges at Fovant that have been lost, although a 'YMCA' badge and a map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne have also become lost recently.[citation needed]

Some of the most significant figures[edit]

England[edit]

In England there are at least fifty landscape figures, the majority of which are in the south.[28] (The phrase "forensic photo", relating to a few lost figures, refers to photos taken with appropriate filters, in optimum lighting, often at times of severe drought or snow covering, to bring out features no longer normally visible.)

Scotland[edit]

Photographic gallery[edit]

English hill figures
Lenham Cross on the North Downs 
The Whipsnade Zoo lion near Whipsnade 
Wye Crown, at Wye, Kent 
Watlington White Mark 
Two of the Fovant badges 
Whiteleaf Cross 
The Mormond Hill White Horse, near Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire 
The Mormond Hill White Stag, near Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire 
The Lamb Down Badge, near Codford, Wiltshire[32] 
Hackpen White Horse 
Pendle Hill marked with the date 1612 on the 400th anniversary of the Witch Trials 

Drawings gallery[edit]

English hill figures
The Cherhill White Horse in 1892. 
The Westbury White Horse in 1772 (Top) and as re-cut in 1778 (Bottom). 
The Uffington White Horse in 1885. 
Layout of the Long Man of Wilmington 
Layout of the Uffington White Horse 
Layout of the Cerne Abbas Giant 

Hill figures in fiction[edit]

Hill figures in film[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
  2. ^ Wiltshire White Horses
  3. ^ Roundway Hill and covert, Oliver's castle and Millennium White Horse
  4. ^ John Timpson, "Timpson's Other England: A Look at the Unusual and the Definitely Odd", Publisher: Jarrold, 1994, ISBN 071170645X, 9780711706453, 224 pages, page 68
  5. ^ Harold William Timperley, "The Vale of Pewsey", Publisher Hale, 1954, 230 pages, page 181
  6. ^ Morris Marples, "White horses and other hill figures", Publisher: A. Sutton, 1949 (reprint), ISBN 0904387593, 9780904387599, 223 pages, page 16
  7. ^ "Top 10: Britain's largest hill figures", The Telegraph, undated, attributed to Top 10 of Britain: 250 Quintessentially British Lists by Russell Ash, published by Hamlyn
  8. ^ a b Bergamar, Kate (1997). Discovering Hill Figures. Pub. Shire. ISBN 0-7478-0345-5.
  9. ^ Prehistorical Wiltshire
  10. ^ Chalk Giants
  11. ^ a b c d Cerne Abbas Giant at Sacred Destinations
  12. ^ Hutchins, John (1973) [1742]. The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset. Robert Douch (Contributor). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-87471-336-6. 
  13. ^ BBC (June 20, 2008). "Sheep shortage hits Giant's look". BBC. Retrieved 2008-06-20. 
  14. ^ Morris, Steven (2008-09-16). "Volunteers restore historic giant of Cerne Abbas to his former glory". The Guardian (Guardian Newspapers). Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  15. ^ a b The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope, Thorsons 1998
  16. ^ Castleden, Rodney (2002). "Shape-shifting: The changing outline of the Long Man of Wilmington". Sussex Archaeological Collections (140): 83–95. 
  17. ^ The Unknown, Issue Jan 1986
  18. ^ Derbyshire, David (2 October 2003). "Prehistoric Long Man is '16th century new boy'". Daily Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group). Retrieved 8 February 2009. 
  19. ^ a b Gray, Todd (2003). Lost Devon: Creation, Change and Destruction over 500 Years. Exeter, Devon: The Mint Press. p. 153. ISBN 1-903356-32-6. 
  20. ^ The Survey of Cornwall, text here:[1]. Note that Carew refers to Plymouth Hoe as "the Hawe at Plymmouth".
  21. ^ Bracken, C. W. (1931). A History of Plymouth and her Neighbours. Plymouth: Underhill. p. 4. 
  22. ^ Gogmagog: The Buried gods
  23. ^ Firle Corn
  24. ^ Scraps of Folklore Collected by John Philipps Emslie, C. S. Burne, Folklore, Vol. 26, No. 2. (Jun. 30, 1915), pp. 153-170.
  25. ^ "Pagans have a cow over Homer". The Sun Online. 2007-07-16. 
  26. ^ "Wish for rain to wash away Homer". BBC News. 2007-07-16. 
  27. ^ a b c d e Hows, Mark. "Lost Figures". Hillfigure site. Retrieved 20 Jan 2014. 
  28. ^ Nigel Clarke, The Rude Man of Cerne Abbas and Other Wessex Oddities, Lyme Regis, Nigel J. Clarke Publications, ISBN 0-10-768307-X
  29. ^ Bergamar, Kate (1997). Discovering Hill Figures. Pub. Shire. ISBN 0-7478-0345-5. P. 7 - 9.
  30. ^ Plenderleath, Rev. W. C. (1892). The White Horses of the West of England. Pub. Allen & Storr, London. P. 38.
  31. ^ Bergamar, Kate (1997). Discovering Hill Figures. Pub. Shire. ISBN 0-7478-0345-5. P. 10 - 12.
  32. ^ [2]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Bergamar, Kate (1997). Discovering Hill Figures, Shire, ISBN 0-7478-0345-5.
  • Newman, Paul (1997). Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill-Figures of Britain (2nd ed), Sutton, ISBN 0-7509-1563-3.
  • Plenderleath, Rev. W. C. (1892). The White Horses of the West of England Allen & Storr, London.

Mapping[edit]

External links[edit]