6 Amazing Geoglyphs

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

Quick answer to the question, “What the heck is a geoglyph?” Do you know what the Nazca lines are? Then you know what a geoglyph is!

(Image credit: Colegota)

1. THE NAZCA LINES

A geoglyph, meaning “land picture,” is a large— sometimes huge— image formed on or carved into the surface of the earth. The most famous are probably the Nazca lines, the enormous figures of people, animals, plants, and geometric shapes scribed into the ground in southern Peru by the ancient Nazca people roughly 1,500 years ago.

But the Nazca lines aren’t the only ones. Geoglyphs can be found all over the world, including in North America. Here are the stories of a few you might want to see for yourself someday.

2. THE UFFINGTON WHITE HORSE

(Image credit: NASA)

Located on a hillside in the parish of Uffington, in south-central England, this geoglyph is so big (about 374 feet across) that from up close it’s impossible to make out what it is. But from a distance— as far as 20 miles on a clear day— it comes to life. It’s the stylized figure of a running horse. It was made by digging trenches up to 10 feet wide in places and filling them with crushed white chalk, making the image stand out starkly against the lush green hillside. And it’s very, very old: archaeologists say it dates to between 1400 and 600 BC. Who made it— and why— is unknown. And some people say it’s not a horse but a cat or perhaps a dragon, although written descriptions of the ancient work going back to the 11th century AD refer to it as a horse.

Note: Similar chalk “hill figures,” as this type of geoglyph is known, can be found all over southern England. Some, like this one, are made by filling trenches with chalk taken from nearby quarries, and others are made by simply stripping away the turf and exposing chalk already deposited below the surface.

3. THE CERNE ABBAS GIANT

(Image credit: Flickr users Liz & Johnny Wesley Barker)

This figure is similar to the Uffington White Horse in that it’s a chalk figure, but this one has a human shape… and it’s naughtier. It’s the figure of a man cut into a steep hillside in the village of Cerne Abbas, not far from England’s southern coast. The figure is 180 feet long— so it can be seen from very far away— and depicts a man standing with outstretched arms, carrying a long knotted club in his right hand. It has facial features (eyebrows, eyes, nose, and mouth), two circles for nipples, lines on the midsection that appear to be ribs, and below the waist it is (ahem) anatomically correct. (That area of the figure explains the site’s alternate name: “The Rude Man of Cerne.”)

The Cerne Abbas Giant was long thought to be an ancient geoglyph, but more recent investigations suggest that may not be the case. One reason: unlike other chalk figures in the region, it was not written about in ancient times. The earliest known reference to it only dates to the late 17th century, which leads some experts to believe it was made around that time, possibly as some kind of political parody.

4. THE SAJAMA LINES

(Image credit: Google Earth)

If you look at aerial or satellite photographs of the region around Mount Sajama, in the high desert plateau land of western Bolivia, it appears as if someone took a giant ruler and scribed thousands of very straight, crisscrossing lines into the land. These are the Sajama lines. Archaeologists say they were made by scraping away surface layers of dark topsoil and rock, thereby exposing the light-colored rock below. They range from 3 to 10 feet in width, with the longest stretch about 12 miles. And each of the lines somehow maintains its very straight course over the rugged, uneven landscape— evidence, experts say, that the lines weren’t built as simple footpaths, as such paths wouldn’t need to be so straight. Many of the lines radiate from a center point, over the region’s hills and peaks, like spokes emanating from the hub of a wheel; this has led some to conclude that the lines carry some kind of religious significance, perhaps as paths used in ritual pilgrimages. Sources vary as to their age: some say they are hundreds of years old, others say thousands. In any case, exactly who made them— and why they made them— remains a mystery.

5. THE BLYTHE GEOGLYPHS

(Image credit: Ron’s Log)

These six huge figures— three depicting humans; two of animals, possibly horses or pumas; and one spiral shape— are scribed into the earth in the Sonoran Desert, not far from the town of Blythe in remote southeast California. The largest, the figure of a man with outstretched arms, measures 171 feet from head to toe. Archaeologists theorize that the drawings were made much the way the Sajama lines were made— by scraping away dark layers of pebbles and sediment, revealing lighter-colored soil below— and that they were likely made by ancestors of the native Mojave and Quechan peoples who still live in the region today. They are at least 450 years old— and possibly much older. They were completely unknown to science or the general public until 1931, when U.S. Army Air Corps pilot George A. Palmer saw them from his small airplane and alerted scientists to their existence. Since Palmer’s discovery, hundreds of other ancient geoglyphs have been discovered in the region.

6. THE ATACAMA GIANT

(Image credit: Flickr user Emilio)

The Atacama Giant is one of more than 5,000 geoglyphs that can be found on the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, home to the largest collection of geoglyphs in the world. But this is one of the most spectacular. It’s the depiction of a humanlike figure scraped into the side of a steep, rocky hill. It’s a towering 393 feet tall and more than 100 feet wide. It has a large, wide, rectangular head with large square eyes and a single square hole that could be either a nose or a mouth. Straight, parallel lines emanate from the top and sides of the head. The figure has a long, rectangular body; the arms are bent, with hands held up at shoulder height; and it has long, thin, straight legs— giving it a vaguely robotic (even Lego-ish) look overall. There are several other images drawn into the earth nearby, including circles and lines, and some archaeologists believe they may have all been used together for some kind of astronomical purpose. Most experts assume the figure represents a deity of some importance to whoever made the giant image, while others believe the Atacama Giant is a drawing of an alien in a space suit. (Which is a lot more fun.)

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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