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Press release

Archaeologists restore shrinking Bronze Age White Horse, Britain’s oldest chalk figure

The White Horse pictured before and after archaeologists restored its profile
The White Horse pictured before and after archaeologists restored its profile | © National Trust Images_James Dobson

Archaeologists from the National Trust and Oxford Archaeology have completed work to restore the profile of Britain’s oldest chalk figure, the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.

Archaeological work last year, including examination of previous measured and aerial surveys, proved that parts of the famous 3000-year-old chalk figure have narrowed over time, due in part to the gradual encroachment of grass on the outlines of the horse and slippage of the topsoil. This was most apparent at the head and neck area which had narrowed to less than half of its typical width.

To return the 111-metre-long horse to its typical profile, archaeologists have carefully cut the encroaching turf back to the estimated original edge and re-distributed some of the top layer of chalk on the figure.

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. 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: “Having the opportunity to work on such an iconic landmark and contribute to this exciting project is a huge privilege for us and we’re delighted to be part of it.

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.”

English Heritage Senior Properties Curator Win Scutt, added: “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.”

During the work to restore the White Horse’s profile, soil samples from the lowest layers of the figure have been taken to see if they can accurately date its creation. Similar samples taken in the 1990s revealed the horse to be Britain’s oldest chalk figure, but as dating techniques have improved there is an opportunity to refine the date even further using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating.

OSL dating analyses crystalline materials such as quartz or feldspar to determine the last time they were exposed to sunlight. Results of the testing are expected later this year.