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Against All Odds, England’s Massive Chalk Horse Has Survived 3,000 Years

Some 3,000 years ago, the people of what is now Oxfordshire, England, carved a pictogram of a horse on a hillside made of chalk. You can't see the entire horse at the site, but from the valley below, it's quite impressive. All these years later, no one knows exactly why the Uffington White Horse was carved, but they still maintain it, as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

It’s chalking day, a cleaning ritual that has happened here regularly for three millennia. Hammers, buckets of chalk and kneepads are handed out and everyone is allocated an area. The chalkers kneel and smash the chalk to a paste, whitening the stony pathways in the grass inch by inch. “It’s the world’s largest coloring between the lines,” says George Buce, one of the participants.

Chalking or “scouring” the horse was already an ancient custom when antiquarian Francis Wise wrote about it in 1736. “The ceremony of scouring the Horse, from time immemorial, has been solemnized by a numerous concourse of people from all the villages roundabout,” he wrote.

In the past, thousands of people would come for the scouring, holding a fair in the circle of a prehistoric fort nearby. These days it’s a quieter event. The only sounds are the wind, distant birdsong and the thumping of hammers on the chalk that can be felt through the feet.

In modern times, the National Trust oversees the volunteers who clean the lines that make up the horse. But it's always been a community event. Read about the horse and the people who maintain it at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: NASA)


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