Ride a White Horse

Paul Newman. Gods and Graven Images; The Chalk Hill Figures of Britain, Robert Hale, 1987.

The great pictures of white horses and naked giants carved out of the chalk on downland hillsides across Southern England retain a considerable power to fascinate, Like the stone circles, hill-forts and burial mounds that are found in the same areas they appear to stand at the boundary of the natural and artificial; the work of humanity but totally integrated with the landscape around them, They offer, in their starkness, a lack of evidence of links with any specific period, that seems to place them outside history as commonly understood,

The standard survey of these figures is Morris Marples' White Horses and Other Hill Figures, written in 1949, Although this book inevitable covers much the same ground, the two surveys are very different, Like Marples, Newman surveys the historical references to and theories of the origins of the older figures such as the Long Man of Wilmington and the Uffington horse, and then looks at the work of more recent imitators such as eighteenth century squires carving out their own white horses, or World War I soldiers cutting regimental badges in the turf. However, where Marples could relegate fringe theories about the origins of the older figures to a lost eighteenth and nineteenth century world of rural clergymen and gentleman amateur archaeologists propounding ideas about Druids, today a whole new world of fringe archaeology has grown up, The chalk figures have been incorporated into the world of leys and terrestrial zodiacs. Ley hunters have produced charts to show, for example, how the white horses of Wiltshire form huge isosceles triangles, unconcerned by the fact that this construction links genuine ancient figures with later imitations,

Mr Newman gives his readers a clear and lives survey of such ideas, and onesuspects that he is sensitiveto their appeal and would liketo believe them more than hisknowledge of archaeology tellshim is possible, When heexpresses his own judgementsthe origins of the more obscure figures his conjectures on probable origins from pre-Roman times to the middle ages seem reasonable enough, and he takes each figure on its own merits, rather than attempting to propound some overall theory to explain everything, However, when attempting to reconstruct the ancient English pagan beliefs on horses, giants and fertility that he believes lay behind some of the figures he moves into more dubious areas, since it is not obvious that it is possible to interpolate these beliefs on the evidence of Mediaeval customs and pagan practices of the classical world and Ireland.

But whether or not these traditions are directly relevant to the building of hill figures, their use of the same symbols is an indication of just how resonant the imagery of the figures remains, a resonance which is further confirmed by this book's interesting selection of responses to the monuments from imaginative writers. -- Roger Sandell. From Magonia 25, March 1987.

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