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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Technician

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Team Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Shunter / HGV Driver

£23172 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest growing h...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager / Estate Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an experienced Resident...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate