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The White Horse of Uffington – or is it a dog?
A long time ago, I made a podcast about graff... iti, and the graffiti artist called Banksy. ‘Graffiti' means pictures or writing painted illegally on a wall or a building, or the side of a train or a bus. Many people think that graffiti are unsightly.
We have a very special sort of rural graffiti in England. Over a large part of southern England, the rock underneath the ground is chalk. Chalk is a sort of limestone. It is made of the bodies of tiny sea creatures which lived millions of years ago. If you take away the grass and other plants from a chalk hillside, you will reach the white chalk rock underneath. Someone, a long time ago, discovered that you can remove the grass to make a picture or pattern on the chalk hillside.
We call a picture on the side of a chalk hill a “hill figure”. A “figure” here just means the shape of a body of a man or an animal. There is also a scientific term “geoglyph” which means a hill figure. “Geoglyph” is not a word we use every day, but you might like to remember it to impress your English teacher! There are nearly 60 surviving hill figures in England. Many of them are horses, though there are also human figures and military badges. There was also at one time a hill figure in the shape of a map of Australia, but it has now disappeared. Among the human figures are the Long Man of Wilmington, and the Cerne Abbas Giant. There is a picture of the Cerne Abbas giant on the website – he is naked, and .. oh, children, look away now!
The Cerne Abbas Giant
Some people like to think that the hill figures are very ancient. You will find web sites which say that they were made by the Celts, the people who lived in this country 2000 and more years ago, and that they were part of the Celts' magical religion. However, the truth is that most hill figures are quite recent. Many date from the 19th century, and often we know the name of the person who made them. Some are older, but with one important exception which I will talk about in a minute, experts think that they are not more than about 400 years old.
Hill figures need to be maintained. In time, the grass grows over them and they disappear. We know of at least 57 more hill figures which existed at one time but are now lost. Hill figures have survived only because local people have been willing, every few years, to repair the figure and remove the grass which has grown on it.
The hill figures are fun and interesting, but they are not generally great works of art. They look as if a horse or a man has laid down on the side of the hill while people cut away the grass around them. They are a bit like children's drawings. The White Horse at Uffington is different. There is a picture of it on the website. It has lines which suggest the shape of the horse – its back, its legs, its head. The horse looks as if it is moving – galloping across the hillside. The person who made it was obviously a talented artist. Perhaps it will not surprise you to know that the Uffington White Horse really is old. We think it was created in the Bronze Age, between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. Why did the Bronze Age people make the horse? Does it have a religious meaning? Or did the artist just look at the empty hillside and say – like a graffiti artist today – “I want to fill that empty space with a really big horse!”
But is it a horse? Recently, a retired vet called Olaf Swarbrick has argued that the figure cannot be a horse, because it is too long and thin. Mr Swarbrick says that it is probably a dog, perhaps a hunting dog. This has caused a fuss in the press. We English have fixed ideas about our history and we do not like it when someone has new ideas. The National Trust, who own the land on which the horse or dog is situated, say it is definitely a horse. But what do you think? Horse or dog? You can vote on the website.
Quiz : how well did you understand the podcast? ::
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