Miles, David. The Land of the White Horse: Visions of England. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019)
“We’ll run the course/ From Stonehenge up to Uffington,/ On a white chalk horse we’ll ride . . .” So sang the band Uffington Horse. The real thing is not quite as mythical, perhaps. It is world famous, and is set in a very, very old landscape, one where people have been leaving traces for tens of thousands of years. The horse is prehistoric . . . or is it? That question kept academics busy for over a century. Although the matter has now been settled, others mysteries remain. David Miles explores that question and others, and considers the role of the horse in life in Eurasian religion and politics since the Indo-Europeans first domesticated them. In the process he covers ground from Scythia to Scandinavia to England. Miles also considers the land under the White Horse, and how people have understood the form, perhaps. Some things we moderns will never know, and he’s upfront about that.
The book begins with the first popularization of the White Horse of Uffington, and questions about its age and history. He then takes us through the archaeology and how questions about the age of the chalk figure were, at last, answered.
From there Miles goes back, to the first images of horses. He follows the story of horses, people, and art from the steppes to the bogs of northern Europe and on to England, or what would become England. Some of this is familiar to those who have read about language and migration history, or horses in society. Miles does a fantastic job placing things in context, and telling the story for non-specialists.
One very important point Miles makes is that the Uffington Horse exists in a landscape. Around the figure are prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, and later ruins, graves, and roads. The horse does not exist in a vacuum, and the setting and structures can tell us a great deal about how people understood the horse.
Because that might be the most important part of the story. The White Horse of Uffington survived for 2500 years, because people took care of it. Each wave of peoples who settled in the area following the first creation of the horse kept it clean, renewed the chalk, and preserved it. Why? What did they see in the form? How did they understand it? We don’t always know, although we can make some good guesses. Obviously it was important. Exactly why changed over the centuries as people understood the figure in different ways and gave it different meanings.
Miles writes very well and tells an entertaining story. If you are interested in archaeology and antiquities, English history, mythology, or history and memory, this is a wonderful book. It gets a bit slow in places, but that might just be me, and the slow sections give way to more interesting ones. When Miles describes the landscape, you are there standing on the crest of the ridge as mist fills the dry valley and the horse runs on clouds.
FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from author or publisher for this review.
For those curious about the song quoted at the start of the review: