The hills have eyes... and a spear
4:30pm Tuesday 6th August 2013 in By Barry Leighton
UFFINGTON has its incomparable prehistoric white horse, Dorset boasts the amusingly shameless and boastful Cerne Abbas Giant and Wilmington in Sussex is known for its enigmatic Long Man.
And today it can be revealed that for the best part of 3,000 years a hillside near Swindon was the site of an epic chalk carving of a giant spearman.
The 130ft high hill figure at Foxhill near Wanborough is believed to have been maintained for generations, almost certainly in honour of pagan gods worshipped throughout the centuries.
It was not until the dominance of Christianity around 1,500 years ago that the carving on the steep chalky downs near the Ridgeway was abandoned and slowly vanished from sight.
For many years – possibly several centuries – it was located alongside an equally impressive chalk figure thought to depict the Saxon god Woden.
The horned giant was 180ft high – around the same size as the world famous Cerne Giant – but this too faded as paganism was slowly eradicated.
The second carving is believed to have given Wanborough its original name of Wodnes-beorg – meaning Woden’s Hill.
For centuries the existence of both hill-carvings, located at what is today Foxhill Farm, Upper Wanborough – not far from the sadly defunct Shepherd’s Rest pub – was unknown.
However, in 1966 Swindon School of Art photography lecturer Gerry Woollard took a series of aerial photographs along the M4’s proposed route through Wiltshire to record the landscape before it was destroyed.
The photos were never printed and he later gave a box of around 100 negatives to Swindon archaeologist Bryn Walters on the off-chance that they may contain evidence of unknown archaeological sites.
Examining them in 1974 Bryn today recalls that his eyes “popped out” at what he saw while printing a bromide plate of a field in Upper Wanborough.
Emerging from the mists of time right in front of his eyes was something quite sensational and completely unexpected. He was gazing upon something which no man had witnessed since the Dark Ages.
It was, says Bryn, “the faint image of a monumental human figure.” Fired by the discovery, and hardly able to believe what he had seen, he scrutinised adjacent negatives to detect the remnants of a second carving in the same field.
Visiting the farmland site, however, proved disappointing as it was covered in a crop of wheat. Farmer Geoffrey Farthing – who had no idea the figures existed – said the steep field was ploughed during World War Two to step-up food production.
Says Bryn: “It is remarkable that the figures survived ploughing in the early 1940s to be detected on the 1966 images.”
The field, known from its medieval name as ‘Maiden’s Piece’ had also been further farmed since the 1966 photos, increasingly eroding the already fading carvings.
Mr Farthing sportingly agreed to maintain the farmland as pasture after seeing the photos but efforts over the decades to gain clearer images – including further aerial photography, infra-red surveys and satellite imaging – proved unsuccessful.
The Royal Greenwich Observatory’s satellite scanning team in 1988 confirmed the authenticity of the photographs, as did a Kodak laboratories executive in 2003.
Very few people are aware of the existence of the figures which were once major landmarks known for miles around.
Bryn, who lives in Central Swindon, says: “I’ve been sitting on this discovery for 40 years. Gerry’s photographs of the hill carvings have never been published.
“The long delay in publishing the existence of these figures has been in the optimistic hope that further illustrative evidence could be secured to corroborate them.
“Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.”
He is now hoping that going public may flush out any images, unreported observations or evidence that exist regarding the figures. He intends to publish a detailed report next year.
Bryn, director of the Swindon-based Association for Roman Archaeology (ARA), says the older figure appears to be casting a weapon – almost certainly a spear or javelin – while wearing a tight fitting hood. One facial feature, the left eye, can be made out.
In front of the figure is a pair of forward looking eyes beneath curved brows known as “occulii” which are “indisputably prehistoric” and of which several examples exist.
The iconic carving was best seen during its heydays from the Neolithic Long Barrow at Liddington Castle directly opposite.
Bryn feels the spearman was created during the late Neolithic period some 5,000 to 4,500 years ago, roughly the same period as early phases of Stonehenge and Avebury and also when the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed.
Over the years it was maintained and revered by generations of local people as a god or hero. The Romans, he says, would have adapted it as their god Mars.
“For it to have survived as long as 5,000 years but to have been destroyed in recent years is maddening,” he says.
The far fainter second figure could have been created either in 500-50BC or AD 550-600: the latter date ties in with the belief that it was a representation of Woden.
However, it is pointless for anyone to visit the site as the figures – originally cut into the chalk a few inches below the surface – have now vanished.
Only future advances in technology, he feels, will enable these once magnificent and monumental carvings, which inspired awe and adoration for countless generations, to once more arise.
- Bryn can be contacted at the ARA, Tel: 01793 534 008. Its web pages can be found at, http://www.associationromanarchaeology.org
OUR WHITE HORSES ARE THE BEST IN THE WORLD
OWING to its chalky downs Wiltshire is the world capital of white horse hill carvings.
Westbury’s famous nag was cut on a 45 degree slope in 1778 – possibly on a previous carving that celebrated Alfred’s victory over the Danes in AD878. (108ft high, 175ft long.)
The white horse at Cherhill was created in 1780 by Dr Christopher Alsop of nearby Calne whose efforts earned him the nickname Mad Doctor. (140ft high, 130ft long)
Gently sloping Granham Hill, Marlborough, is home to a horse cut by students of the town’s college in 1804, and is commemorated in a college song. (48ft high, 62ft long.)
Old Adam Hill, Alton Barnes is home to a nag created in 1812 having been commissioned by tenant farmer Robert Pile. (180ft high, 160ft long.)
The Hackpen Hill horse, near Broad Hinton, was carved in 1838 at the instigation of parish clerk Henry Eatwell. (80ft high, 90ft long.)
At nearby Broad Town stands a lively, trotting horse believed to have been fashioned in 1864 by William Simmonds, on whose land it stands. (75ft high, 78ft long.)
With its care-free trotting stance Pewsey’s white horse was created in 1937 to mark the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth. (45ft high, 66ft long.)
The latest addition to Wiltshire’s stable appeared at Roundway Hill, Devizes to commemorate the Millennium in 2000. (148ft high, 150ft long.)