The calcite containing rock called chalk has several peculiarities. One is that it was formed during only one time in earth’s history, the Cretaceous period. Another is the intense whiteness of freshly dug rock. In prehistory newly constructed chalk banks and mounds must have been starkly visible for many miles. Remove the turf and topsoil covering from a chalk hill and you have the means of creating a landscape art work. There are a great many chalk figures carved into English hillsides but most of them, such as horses or regimental badges, are identifiable as products of the last 200 years. The Uffington White Horse, together with the Cerne Abbas Giant (Dorset) and the Wilmington Long Man (East Sussex), is one of the few chalk hill figures that might conceivably be ancient. To remain visible such monuments need to be regularly cleaned or ‘scoured’ preserving the white chalk from encroaching vegetation. Because of this process there may well have been subtle changes to the shape of these figures over the centuries. In fact there have been small alterations to the Long Man within my lifetime.
The White Horse, which is 110 m long, gave its name to the hill it is carved into and the vale it overlooks; its presence has been noted since the twelfth century. The monument was originally dated stylistically to the Iron Age by O.G.S. Crawford, who drew parallels with the depiction of horses on some coins of this period. The White Horse shows well on aerial photographs or with Google Earth. The monument was constructed from clean chalk blocks with a thin ‘puddled’ chalk surface. At excavation no datable artefacts were found beneath the earliest horse material. The technique of Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) could not date the chalk surfaces themselves but it was thought that the technique would date the sediments immediately above and below the first puddled chalk. Sediment samples were taken from the White Horse at excavation in 1994. These gave an age range of 1380-550 BC for the initial construction. It does seem that the monument is at least 2500 years old, and was first created in the Iron Age or even the late Bronze Age.
It is much more difficult to ascribe an early date to the Giant or the Long Man. No historical record of them exists before the early post-medieval period. Both were within easy sight of medieval religious foundations. It seems improbable that monks would have tolerated apparently, or in the case of the giant obviously, masculine pagan figures so close to their houses if they had been present. Many dates have been considered for the Long Man, was it another Iron Age creation, or was there a similarity with the figure on an Anglo-Saxon buckle from Kent? As a child I was told that it was actually created by the medieval monks to welcome pilgrims. Over the last 15 years the situation has become clearer. The dramatically naked Sussex downland was created by tree felling in the early Bronze Age or even the late Neolithic, say four or five thousand years ago. It has subsequently been maintained by the cropping of sheep. Excavation of areas around the monument have produced medieval pottery. OSL dating of brick fragments suggests a date around AD 1545. It seems most likely then that the Long Man was originally constructed in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, a time of religious conflict involving the reformation, civil war and restoration. Who created the figure, and why, remains unknown.
The final figure, a gigantic club waving man, is close to an Iron Age earthwork known as ‘The Trendle’. Geophysical investigation suggests that originally the left arm was adorned with a cloak or skin, suggesting perhaps that the figure was intended to represent Hercules. One theory suggests that as the local lord of the manor was once an English Civil War figure, Denzil Holles (1599-1680), the Giant is intended to portray Oliver Cromwell as ‘the English Hercules’. In summary while at least one chalk figures was present in the prehistoric landscape those at Wilmington and Cerne Abbas must now be considered as monuments of the early post-medieval period. Things are usually older than you think, but not this time.