White horse was guardian of souls: David Keys on evidence of a religious role in the pagan era for Britain's best-known chalk figure

BRITAIN's most famous chalk hill figure - the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire - was built to guard the souls of local ancient Britons, research suggests.

Archaeological information obtained over recent weeks has revealed that the White Horse formed part of a great prehistoric funerary complex, used for more than 4,000 years, from about 3500 BC.

Facing the horse's head, archaeologists have found the remains of a 25-metre long, 5,500- year-old burial mound together with evidence that 80 to 100 third to fourth century AD Romano-Britons were also buried there.

Almost immediately above the horse's head, the excavation team - led by David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit and funded by W H Smith - found a 3,900-year-old early Bronze Age burial mound 15 metres in diameter. It is believed to have ultimately held Bronze Age, Romano- British and sixth century Anglo- Saxon burials.

The horse itself was probably carved in the Iron Age - a period in which the dead were seldom buried, their remains being disposed of in other as yet undetermined ways. This probably explains the absence of any burials around the horse dating from the Iron Age - the 800- year period from the end of the Bronze Age to the first century AD Roman conquest.

However, the discovery that the site was used for funerary purposes, both before the Iron Age and after it in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, does suggest that some sort of ritual activity went on, at least intermittently, throughout the whole of the prehistoric, Roman and pagan Anglo-Saxon periods from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) onwards.

The discovery of the burial area next to the horse helps confirm the steed's religious importance. In Iron Age Britain and throughout Celtic Europe, horses were regarded as high status animals. Many Celtic deities were associated with them. One Celtic horse goddess - Epona or her British equivalent, the goddess Rhiannon - had, among her roles, that of protecting the dead.

The evidence of funerary rituals suggests that the Uffington White Horse may have been built to represent the cult of the great Celtic goddess Epona, whose name came from the Celtic word for horse (epos) and who was ultimately worshipped not only in Britain, but also in Gaul, Germany, the Balkans, North Africa and Rome. She was sometimes also viewed as a mother goddess responsible for fertility.

The religious nature of the site did not cease with the demise of paganism in the seventh century AD. For Uffington's horse connection continued into the Christian era, though in a metamorphosed form. It was said that White Horse Hill was the place where St George, mounted on his steed, had killed the dragon and the equine hill figure was, for many centuries in the Christian era, said to be either St George's charger or the dragon itself.

A Christian chapel is thought to have been built in the fourth or fifth century AD on a natural mound, now called Dragon Hill, in order to Christianise what had been an important pagan ritual centre.

(Photograph omitted)