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Archaeologists restore profile of Britain’s oldest chalk figure

The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which dates back to the Bronze Age, has been given a facelift by archaeologists (National Trust/PA)
The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which dates back to the Bronze Age, has been given a facelift by archaeologists (National Trust/PA)

Archaeologists have given Britain’s oldest chalk figure a facelift, with work to restore the head and neck profile of the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.

Archaeological work last year, including examination of previous surveys, showed that parts of the ancient chalk horse carved into the hillside have narrowed over time, as grass has encroached and topsoil slipped.

The head and neck area of the 3,000-year-old figure had narrowed to less than half its typical width.

The head and neck of the Uffington White Horse before and after restoration
The head and neck of the Uffington White Horse before and after restoration (National Trust/PA)

Now archaeologists from the National Trust and Oxford Archaeology have returned the 364ft (111m) long horse, which dates from the Bronze Age, to its typical profile, by carefully cutting the encroaching turf back to the estimated original edge and re-distributing some of the top layer of chalk on the figure.

During the work, soil samples from the lowest layers of the figure have also been taken to see if they can be used to accurately date its creation.

Previous samples taken in the 1990s revealed the horse to be Britain’s oldest chalk figure, but techniques to date archaeological remains have improved so there is an opportunity to refine the date further, the team said.

Aerial view of Uffington White Horse after restoration
The chalk figure is 3,000 years old (National Trust/PA)

They are using “optically stimulated luminescence” (OSL) dating – which analyses crystalline materials such as quartz or feldspar to determine the last time they were exposed to sunlight – and results are expected later this year.

National Trust archaeologist Adrian Cox said: “The Uffington White Horse is set in a dramatic landscape, shaped by nature and by people through time.

“It is a hugely important chalk figure, partly because it is the oldest scientifically dated example in Britain, dating back to the late Bronze Age.

“It is also an intriguing figure as we don’t know for certain its original purpose. It could have been a way of marking territory or as a tribal symbol.

People 'rechalking' the White Horse
People ‘rechalking’ the White Horse (National Trust/PA)

“What we do know is that through the efforts of generations of local people, the horse has been cared for, allowing it to survive for thousands of years to become an iconic feature of this landscape.”

Oxford Archaeology project manager Mark Dodd said it was a huge privilege to work on such an “iconic landmark”.

“Now the hard work is done, and we can see elements of the monument restored to its former glory, we will be eagerly awaiting the results of research to see what new information this will bring to light,” he said.

English Heritage senior properties curator Win Scutt said: “As a Scheduled Monument, the Uffington White Horse is under the guardianship of English Heritage.

“We’re delighted that work is being done to better understand this iconic place while it’s returned to its former shape and size.”