Hill figure  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A hill figure is a large visual representation created by cutting into a steep hillside and revealing the underlying geology. It is a type of geoglyph usually designed to be seen from afar rather than above. In some cases trenches are dug and rubble made from material brighter than the natural bedrock is placed into them. The new material is often chalk, a soft and white form of limestone, leading to the alternative name of chalk figure for this form of art.

Ancient hill figures cut in grass are especially a phenomenon in England: examples include the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Uffington White Horse, the Long Man of Wilmington, as well as the "lost" carvings at Cambridge, Oxford and Plymouth Hoe. From the 18th century onwards, many further ones were added.


The creation of hill figures has been practised since prehistory and can include human and animal forms (cutting horses is known, as well as more abstract symbols and, in the modern era, advertising brands.

The reasons for the creation for the figures are varied and obscure. The Uffington Horse probably held political significance, since the figure dominates the valley below. It probably dates to the British Iron Age since coins have been found exhibiting the symbol. The Cerne Abbas Giant might have been a work of political satire. Wiltshire is a county with a large number of White Horses; 14 have been recorded. The figures are usually created by the cutting away of the top layer of relatively poor soil on suitable hillsides. This exposes the white chalk beneath, which contrasts well with the short green hill grass, and the image is clearly visible for a considerable distance. Despite most of the figures being of great age, many are relatively new. Devizes in Wiltshire created a large white horse for the 2000 Millennium celebrations and in October 2009 celebrated this with an aerial photo of volunteers making the figure 10 for an aerial photo.

Figures must be maintained to remain visible, and local people often work regularly to restore or maintain a local landmark, though, two cuttings of military badges at Sutton Mandeville, Wiltshire, are becoming lost. A map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne, Wiltshire, was lost in 2005.

Similar pictures exist elsewhere in the world, notably the far larger Nazca Lines in Peru, which are on flat land but visible from hills in the area. These were made in desert terrain, however, not on grassy hillsides and so have not become overgrown, and thus have survived much longer without maintenance.

"Gigantotomy" and "Leucippotomy"

In 1949, Morris Marples invented the words "leucippotomy" and "gigantotomy". Morris wrote that he "half-humorously ventured to use leucippotomy for the cutting of white horses and gigantotomy for the cutting of giants on rare occasions". Neither word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, and rarely in the popular press.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hill figure" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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