The Archaeology of White Horse Hill



White Horse Hill, Uffington.


White Horse Hill is not a single monument but a series, an assemblage or complex of monuments. It forms part of a complicated landscape whole comprising several chronological sequences and ‘historical references. Two of the most notable features, the White Horse hilltop figure and the hill fort of Uffington Castle, have an intentional location that “articulates with the wider landscape and community. The White Horse is the only prehistoric equine hill figure in Britain.The hill top has seen continuous use for 5000 years and has a long history of phases of use. It is possible, it is feasible, to both protect and popularise a natural landscape consisting of many monuments that is intensively used and re-used by thousands of people over thousands of years. Firstly, an outline of the prehistoric and historic nature of the site; and secondly, discuss the site in terms of conservation and community demands.

White Horse Hill — an archaeological and historical survey

The White Horse complex consists of Uffington Castle, the Iron Age hill fort, the first stage of which occurred during the 7th century BC. It was remodelled during the 4th century BC. During the 4th millennium BC a Neolithic long barrow was constructed. The Bronze Age round barrows date from around 2000 BC. There is evidence of Roman activity and Romano-British reuse. The Romano-Britons re-used the Neolithic long barrows with interment of 90 burials on top.

The landscape shows that the site operates within a larger complex associated with the linking Ridgeway and linear ditch which predate the hill fort. Nearby monuments which form part of the landscape archaeology include Tower Hill (late Bronze’ Age), the Rams Hill enclosure, Segsbury Camp, Alfred’s Castle, Hardwell Camp, Wayland’s Smithy, the curious Dragon Hill, and the White Horse chalk figure. Rams Hill Enclosure was established in prehistoric times and continues up to the Romano-British, sequence. Wayland’s Smithy is a megalithic tomb named after Voland or Wayland the smith. The enigmatic Dragon Hill could be a natural hill or artificial. Its flattened to could be the result of human modelling, the remains of a glacial landscape or erosional relic. Linear ditches form a sequence across chalk downlands and thought to be late Bronze Age land divisions! The White Horse Hill linear ditch slightly predates the hill fort.

It is known that “…the earliest enclosure was built at the end of the late Bronze Age or beginning of the Iron Age.” (Gosden, & Lock, 1998) and, like Segsbury Castle, it was laid out at the end of the linear ditch. Furthermore there is an Iron Age ditch at Wayland\s Smithy. The White Horse has been dated by optically simulated luminescence (OSL) and three dates obtained exclude previous associations with Anglo-Saxon and late Iron Age Celtic activity. The OSL results suggest a construction date range of 1400 to 600 BC. This makes the figure, directly cut into the hillside and packed with chalk, around 1000 years older than originally thought.

The chronological sequence of the White Horse Hill complex runs from the Neolithic to the late, Bronze Age and the Iron Age. During the 4th century BC the ramparts of Uffington Castle, built on the actual Ridgeway, were remodelled. Originally the ‘Ridgeway ran through the hill fort via two entrances, but later the Ridgeway was diverted to run around the fort. Unlike Danebury Castle, which was densely occupied for some 500 years, Uffington was not permanently settled all the time. Despite the excavation of a massive monumental wooden entrance, with inner and outer gates associated with a tunnel-like entrance, it is known that the hill fort was unoccupied from the 4th century BC until the 3rd century AD.

It seems that Uffington Castle was a monument associated with rituals and ceremonies connected to the White Horse hillside figure, and thus reinforces the idea that the site is “…an inspirational landscape moulded and etched by nature and by people through time.” (Miles, & Palmer,1995). Rampart breaks date from Romano-British times and pre-date 856 AD ruling out Anglo-Saxon intervention. Indeed the “…accumulated evidence for activity on White Horse Hill during the Romano-British period is now considerable…” (Gosden, & Lock, 1998) suggesting the area was a religious centre with the rampart gap allowing access to the horse figure.

Image (402)

The main archaeological features and excavation trenches at White Horse Hill

Conservation or Community? Conflict or Cooperation?

Protected sites require mandated legal enforcement and agencies exist for the preservation and guardianship of such locations. Within these parameters White Horse Hill is a protected landscape, one where “…the problems and conflicts involved in managing, investigating and interpreting an area of such sensitivity.” (Miles, & Palmer, 1995) are paramount. Until recently (the last 150 years) local Uffington villagers regularly scoured the White Horse. In 1857 a Scouring Committee under Thomas Hughes was formed and his account describes 15,000 to 18,000 present on the site during the regular event known as the past-time. During the event there were fairground entertainments and proves the continued use of the site. Such community involvement shows a temporal relationship and temporal links with the use and re-use of an ancient landscape monument. This proves that over thousands of years ‘White Horse Hill means different things to different people who use it in different ways.” (Miles, & Palmer, 1995) and moreover it also indicates that whatever “…the exact social circumstances of cleaning, it is clear that the Horse has been maintained regularly over a period of 3,000 years.” (Gosden, & Lock, 1998). The Horse requires cleaning every 20 years and apparently this event has occurred every 20 years or so for the last 3000 years and, constructed between 800 and 300 BC, it maintains its original shape.

Conservation means protection which means tourism or public use implies people themselves are agents of destruction (Renfrew, & Bahn, 2001). We are thus faced with a paradigm – firstly, how should ancient monuments that are seemingly disconnected from the present be presented, and secondly “…should the public be encouraged to take an interest in, and feel responsibility for a surviving monument from the distant past?” (Greene, 2002). White Horse Hill, as both an ancient and contemporary site, with a continuous history of use and re-use, presents as a location of conflicting demands. Within the complex itself there is the added problem of natural erosion as well as recreational erosion.

Tourist or recreational erosion is especially of concern in chalk sites because topsoil loss hastens chalk erosion. White Horse Hill, as with threats to other archaeological sites, still presents unresolved problems where solutions are only partial (Renfrew, & Bahn, 2002.). For White Horse Hill the conservation and preservation of the site becomes one of cultural resource management. The objective is to provide a low-key informational service to attract and inspire visitors to learn about, respect, and thereby protect, their heritage.

The process is a dynamic one where visitors of all types, and for whatever the reason for their visit, will recognise the inter-relationships. and inter-dependencies the monuments have with the surrounding landscape over time. In such a milieu it is hoped visitors would appreciate their inter-relationship with the monuments and their landscape. In such a manner it may be easier to maintain the archaeological record for future study and educational programmes. Moreover the millennially embedded population practice of the use and re-use of the site can continue and, hopefully, create an ethic of cooperation rather than confrontation in issues of who owns the past, not to mention who owns where the material culture and evidence of the past may be situated.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2003).


Gosden, C. & Lock, G. (1998). Prehistoric Histories. World Archaeology. 30 (1), 2-12.

Greene, K. (2002). Archaeology: An Introduction. 4th Edition. Routledge, London.

Miles, D & Palmer, S. (1995). White Horse Hill. Current Archaeology. 142, XII, 10. 372-8.

Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. (2001). Archaeology. Thames & Hudson. London



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