A horse? | Bodleian Map Room Blog

By neub9
3 Min Read

Chalk figures on hillsides are a common sight, especially in southern Britain, but they still hold an air of mystery. Who created them? What is their significance? These figures have also caused issues on maps. Early modern cartographers drew maps based on information from other surveyors, leading to errors. For example, the prehistoric ‘horse’ at Uffington, known as the Uffington White Horse, does not actually look like a horse. This misunderstanding is reflected in the Sheldon tapestry map of Oxfordshire, which portrays a majestic, albeit enormous, white horse striding over the side of the hill.

Richard Hyckes, who designed the tapestry, likely did not know the reality of the situation. The error was repeated by John Rocque, albeit with a more modest representation of the horse.

It wasn’t until the Ordnance Survey surveyed the country that the Uffington White Horse was depicted accurately.

The Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset is another famous chalk figure, with its origins shrouded in mystery. The nearby Cerne Abbey may have influenced its creation. Interestingly, the Ordnance Survey somewhat sanitized the representation of the Cerne Abbas Giant when it was published in 1888.

The Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex did not appear on maps until the Ordnance Survey included it. The map by Thomas Yeakell and William Gardner from 1778-1783 ignores the figure entirely, leading to speculation about whether the creators were unaware of its existence or chose not to represent it.

These examples highlight the challenges that early cartographers faced and the impact of their errors on our historical understanding of these unique landmarks.

Sheldon tapestry map of Oxfordshire [1590?] (R) Gough Maps 261

John Rocque. A topographical map of the county of Berks (1761) Gough Maps Berkshire 6

Ordnance Survey 2nd edition 1:2500 Berkshire XIII.14 1899

Isaac Taylor. Dorset-shire. 1765 Gough Maps Dorset 11

Ordnance Survey 1st edition 1:2500 Dorset XXXI.2 1888

Thomas Yeakell, William Gardner. The county of Sussex. 1778-1783. Gough Maps Sussex 14

Ordnance Survey 3rd edition 1:2500 Sussex LXVIII.15 1909

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