Hill figures brought to life for first time in centuries
5:30am Wednesday 19th March 2014 in By Barry Leighton
FOR almost 3,000 years the impressive 130ft giant, stridently depicted casting a spear, was seen for miles around from a steep hillside close to what later became Swindon.
Having been maintained for generations the huge chalk hill carving, almost certainly worshipped as a pagan god, was eventually abandoned around 1,500 years ago as the forces of Christianity emerged.
For possibly several centuries it sat alongside an equally striking figure on the same hillside at Foxhill, near Wanborough, thought to represent the Saxon god Woden.
Around the same size as Dorset’s world famous Cerne Giant, the horned carving was 180ft high but this, too, gradually faded over the centuries as paganism was eradicated.
Now the story of Wanborough’s lost hill figures – and their remarkable chance rediscovery – is being told to members of the public for the first time at a special lecture at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
Incorporating infra-red aerial photographs taken by NASA, the presentation on Friday, March 28, is being given by Swindon archaeologist Bryn Walters who has been researching the figures for 40 years.
Bryn, director of the Association for Roman Archaeology, said: “The evening will include lots of pictures of the figures, explanations as to probable reasons they were created, along with parallels and comparisons with other hill carvings.”
Throwing what appears to be a spear or javelin while wearing a tight-fitting hood, Bryn believes the older carving was constructed on the chalky downs during the late Neolithic period 5,000 to 4,500 years ago.
The far fainter second figure is understood to have been carved either in 500-50BC or AD 550-600: the latter date ties in with the belief it was a representation of Woden – and could have given Wanborough its original name of Wodnes-beorg (Woden’s Hill.) 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 vanished.
The photos were never printed and he later gave a box of around 100 negatives to Bryn on the off-chance they may contain evidence of unknown archaeological sites.
Examining them in 1974, Bryn was stunned when he detected “the faint image of a monumental human figure” before coming across the remnants of another in the same Upper Wanborough field.
When he visited the site, farmer Geoffrey Farthing said he had no idea the figures existed and revealed the site had been heavily ploughed, which would have all but obliterated them from sight. After seeing the photos, Mr Farthing agreed not to plough the fields further.
Bryn, who is preparing an archaeological report on the figures, revealed the images – authenticated by two sets of experts – to scholars at Devizes Museum. Last year he went public with a story in the Adver in the hope of finding further photographic evidence which he is convinced exists.
l Tickets are £4.50 or £3.50 to Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and are available from the museum in Bath Road, Old Town, Swindon, SN1 4BA.
Call 01793 466556.
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