Photograph by Pete Landers

Why I Help Maintain a 3000-year-old Geoglyph

Across cultures and across time, group rituals endure because they are about not just the activity itself, but the maintenance of a community and connections between geographically distributed groups, people, and ideas.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

The Ballad of the White Horse
G.K. Chesterton

The Uffington Horse is the most ancient geoglyph in Britain, yet without human activity, it would be reclaimed by nature within a few decades. For three thousand years, communities in the Berkshire Downs and beyond have traveled here to transport limestone rocks from the nearby quarry and beat a new layer of chalk into the contours of the Bronze Age icon. Such maintenance has endured through revolution and reformation, civil war, foreign occupation, pestilence and plague. It was a tradition already centuries deep by the time Caesar set foot on this island and one that endures long after Rome’s demise.

Since 02019 members of Long Now London (one of the most active European meetup groups of the Long Now Foundation) have volunteered for the National Trust — the Horse’s current custodians — to use our labor to help with its upkeep. While the past few years have had favorable weather for the chalking, 02023 looked as if the whole enterprise would be a wash-out, as heavy rain was forecast for the whole day. (This would be a particular disappointment to one of us who had flown in from the United States for the activity.) Yet, in the damp lull between downpours, we saw an opportunity to progress the chalking in an hour-long window before the algorithms prophesied the rains would return.

Long Now London, with National Trust ranger Andrew Foley and Archeologist David Mile. Not long after the rain relented. Photograph by Pete Landers

One area of the horse was of particular priority: its thin legs where chalk stones which had been laid a few years previously and had now greyed and dulled under the entropy of the elements, and after being neglected during the pandemic years. This gave the legs a muted tone which affected the overall look of the glyph. However, our National Trust ranger Andy warned us that chalking would be more challenging in the aftermath of the downpour, with the moist limestone sticking to the hammer and confounding our attempts to pulverize it. Nevertheless, we began to make use of the time we had.

Through our phones, we nervously consulted the digital auguries to see what the weather might do next. A front of heavy rain was predicted to lash down on our project imminently, so we made backup plans to visit the nearby neolithic burial site Weyland’s Smithy. Yet we also looked to the skies for information, and as we did, we saw the foretold weather front split apart, as if cleaved by an elemental spirit. Now with the favor of the gods, our work could continue until the mid-afternoon.

READ our 02019 essay on Long Now London's 02019 trip to chalk the White Horse of Uffington and what the activity reveals about the value of maintenance.

The core Long Now London contingent are now quite adept at the manual know-how of pounding the rocks efficiently, capable in the various hammering techniques to use gravity to our advantage. It was now our fifth year of partaking in the activity, a sort of pilgrimage which seems to be growing in attendance with each passing year. While this year’s event was nearly rained off, the unlikely success of this year’s expedition showed us that perseverance is rewarded.

Also present in a professional capacity was Oxford archaeologist David Mile, author of the book The Land of the White Horse (02019), who along with colleagues was conducting a study to try and understand how the contours of the Horse had changed over time. Humorously he was standing in the exact same place as we saw him last year, near the eye of the geoglyph like some videogame NPC. Yet his presence this week was not a coincidence. This time of year was becoming the nexus of chalking activities, in part because we’d become a regular and reliable source of labor around which to structure other activities. Even the local pub, usually closed on a Monday, graciously agreed to open and accommodate our post-chalking pints.

David and his colleague Adrian Cox had concluded that since at least the 01980s, largely due to the slow encroachment of the growth and gravity, the outlines of the horse had begun to shrink and they were here today to dig a small trench to try and prove his hypothesis. He also noted that over-chalking on its belly over the last 40 years had resulted in a small but noticeable bulge. Later in the pub, I joked that the horse was getting fat, although another noted that perhaps it was pregnant.

What then, does the Horse symbolize? To the people who carved it out of the earth, evidence suggests it may have represented a blazing chariot that pulled the sun across the sky in much as the same ways as Helios (later, Apollo) was said to. Such myths are archetypical amongst the Indo-European horse cultures like the one that settled here long ago, and variations of the sun-chariot myth exist in various permutations across Europe and South Asia.

Due to the geology of the Berkshire Downs, however, the expression of this yet-more ancient tradition took on unique British characteristics. The horse, just like the south of England itself, is made of the remains of hundred-million-year-old mollusk shells and microscopic creatures which once inhabited the oceans of the Upper Cretaceous. The chalk landscape — most famously visible in the White Cliffs of Dover — offered the founders a unique way to bring the myth to life, so unique in fact that nowhere else in Europe are there geoglyphs anything like it. Indeed the most similar structures are the Nazca Lines in Peru, where human endeavor is instead assigning them to oblivion due to excess tourism.

READ our 02019 article on how artificial intelligence is helping researchers discover new Nazca Lines in Peru.

If not followers of the cult of the solar horse, what brings us here each year? On one level it is simply a place to have great conversations and share interesting ideas; this year one of us joked that the way to measure the success of one of these trips was how many book recommendations you had by the end of the day. Yet this is not peripheral. Across cultures and across time, group rituals endure because they are also about not just the activity itself, but the maintenance of a community and connections between geographically distributed groups, people, and ideas. And in today’s digitized world of civilizational estrangement from nature and social-media-induced sociopathy, it helps us engage with each other and the natural world itself, not the computational shadows cast on the cave walls of the internet.

But it is also for lovers of Deep Time about being part of a tradition that transcends tradition. A way of helping us think on timescales beyond that of fleeting things like civilizations. It is a symbol of human endurance in the face of change; a place of stability and calm amidst cultural turmoil and the enthusiasms of ephemeral empires. A monument to humanity’s endless adaptability and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of entropy.

Three thousand years have passed since the horse was "cut out of the grass" as Chesterton put it, but will the people of 05023 still be taking part in this great kinetic chain? If so, what sort of people, in what sort of world? Perhaps by then the horse will overlook a tropical floodplain or be nestled in the middle of some as-yet unfounded megacity. Perhaps the horse species itself will be extinct. Perhaps, with information from the early day of the internet sparse, people then will speculate about our motivations and mindset as much as we do about the founders. They may consider us from the vantage point of a moral, intellectual and conceptual word wholly unimaginable to us as ours is to those Bronze-Age charioteers.

Yet despite these great uncertainties, right now and for all nows to come the horse is a reminder that we are caretakers of what we inherit, like cultures, languages, and the natural world itself. Precious things we best not let slip into the abysmal forgetting of the river Lethe.

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