Hill figures are works of art created carving into a hill’s turf to reveal the underlying soil or bedrock. Hill figures are typically very large and designed to be seen from afar, and they are frequently placed so that people at the bottom of the hill can clearly see the figure as well. Because of the large number of such works of art in Great Britain, many people associate hill figures with England, even though they can be found in other parts of the world.
The reasons for making hill figures are unknown, but they have undoubtedly been done for a long time. Hill figures dating back thousands of years have been discovered, with many dating back several hundred years. These figures could be purely decorative, or they could be intended as tributes to various mythological figures. Horses and humans are frequently depicted in hill figures, and they are sometimes depicted together.
Because of the abundance of chalky bedrock in England, it is particularly well-suited to the creation of hill figures. This white rock stands out against the surrounding turf and shrubs when exposed. A hill figure can also be filled in with various colored materials for contrast, and glass bottles are sometimes used to create a desired texture in a hill figure.
A hill figure will eventually fade away if it is not maintained. The surrounding turf will encroach, reclaiming the hill figure, and the exposed rock may erode over time, obliterating the hill figure’s details. Several hill figure preservation societies have sprung up in response to this problem. These groups maintain hill figures in their area keeping the turf back and re-laying the chalk or other material in the hill figure on a regular basis to ensure that it lasts.
Although many people associate hill figures with Celtic art and prehistoric Britain, the majority of the oldest surviving hill figures, such as the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington, date from the 18th century. The Uffington White Horse, which dates from the Bronze Age, appears to be the oldest extant hill figure, but countless others have undoubtedly been lost over the centuries.