What is a Hill Figure?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A hill figure is a work of art created by carving into the turf of a hill to expose the underlying soil or bedrock. Typically, hill figures are extremely large, designed to be seen from a great distance, and they are often positioned in such a way that people at the bottom of the hill can clearly see the figure as well. Great Britain has a huge number of such works of art, leading many people to associate hill figures with England in particular, although they can also be found in other regions of the world.

In many parts of England, the underlying geology of the hillsides is chalky, and as a result, hill figures are white.
In many parts of England, the underlying geology of the hillsides is chalky, and as a result, hill figures are white.

The reasons for creating hill figures are obscure, but people have certainly been making them for a very long time. Traces of hill figures which are thousands of years old have been discovered, and many are several hundred years old. Such figures may simply be artistic, or they may be intended as tributes to various mythological individuals. Horses and humans are common subjects of hill figures, sometimes even depicted together.

England's geology makes it especially well-suited to the creation of hill figures, since Britain has a great deal of chalky bedrock. When exposed, this white rock stands out against the surrounding turf and shrubs. A hill figure can also be filled in with various colored materials for contrast, and sometimes things like glass bottles will be used in a hill figure to create a desired texture.

If a hill figure is not maintained, it will eventually fade away. The surrounding turf will encroach, covering the hill figure again, and the exposed rock may be eroded with time, gouging out the details of the hill figure. In response to this issue, several hill figure preservation societies have arisen. These groups perform routine maintenance on hill figures in their area, keeping the turf back and occasionally re-laying the chalk or other material in the hill figure so that it will endure.

While many people associate hill figures with Celtic art and prehistoric Britain, most of the oldest surviving hill figures, like the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington, are actually from the 18th century. The oldest extant hill figure appears to the the Uffington White Horse, which dates back to the Bronze Age, but uncounted others have undoubtedly been lost over the centuries.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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