Besides petroglyphs and pictographs, earth figures called geoglyphs are also considered rock art. While petroglyphs and pictographs are created on rock surfaces, geoglyphs are large designs formed on the ground. There are two common methods of creating geoglyphs. According to former archaeologist K. Kris Hurst, one method involves “moving or arranging stones or earth or other objects within a landscape.” In addition, she states that they “can be carved into a hillside exposing bedrock.”
Examples of Geoglyphs
Bighorn Medicine Wheel
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming reflects how Native Americans were attuned to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. Wikipedia notes that medicine wheels were used for “religious, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes” and that the stones of many medicine wheels were arranged in a common pattern:
Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center of stone(s), and surrounding that is an outer ring of stones with “spokes”, or lines of rocks radiating from the center with the spokes facing East, South, West and North following the cardinal directions.
Source: “Medicine wheel” – Wikipedia
In addition, the Sacred Destinations website notes that the Bighorn Medicine Wheel was “constructed around 700 years ago” and is “aligned with the stars.”
Bighorn medicine wheel.jpg
By National Park ServiceLifefeed at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
On an arid coastal plain in Peru, the Nazca people embarked on an ambitious project between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500: the creation of hundreds of long lines, geometric figures, and various other designs. They pushed aside the red pebbles on the plain, and the paler ground beneath became their canvas.
National Geographic provides a brief description of the wide range and large size of the Nazca people’s remarkable achievement:
The lines are found in a region of Peru just over 200 miles southeast of Lima, near the modern town of Nasca. In total, there are over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant designs, also called biomorphs. Some of the straight lines run up to 30 miles, while the biomorphs range from 50 to 1200 feet in length (as large as the Empire State Building).
Recently, a pilot discovered some new figures. According to The Huffington Post, these figures “include a snakelike figure roughly 200 feet long, a huge zigzag line, and a giant bird.” They “were apparently exposed by recent sandstorms in the area.”
Why were the Nazca Lines made? Several theories have emerged over the years. According to National Geographic, archaeologists Paul Kosok and Maria Reiche argued that the Nazca Lines served an “astronomical and calendrical purpose.” However, additional research over the years reveals they were probably used for ritual purposes:
“It seems likely that most of the lines did not point at anything on the geographical or celestial horizon, but rather led to places where rituals were performed to obtain water and fertility of crops,” wrote Reinhard in his book The Nasca Lines: A New Perspective on their Origin and Meanings.
Anthony Aveni, a former National Geographic grantee, agrees, “Our discoveries clearly showed that the straight lines and trapezoids are related to water…but not used to find water, but rather used in connection with rituals.”
Despite all of this archaeological study of the Nazca Lines, no one really knows for sure what was the exact purpose of these mysterious and fascinating lines and designs.
Lignes de Nazca oiseau.jpg
Nazca Lines Hummingbird.jpg
Nazca Lines monkey.jpg
Another group of interesting geoglyphs are hill figures. While there are some hill figures in other parts of the world, a large number of them are located in England. Many English hill figures depict horses, but there are other types of figures, such as giants, crosses, and badges. A few are prehistoric, while others were made within the past few hundred years.
The hill figures in England share common characteristics. As their name implies, many of them were cut into hillsides. In addition, many of them are white because the cutting process revealed the underlying chalk in the ground. For areas that did not have chalk underneath the topsoil, the hill figure creators used another process. Wikipedia notes that trenches were dug and then filled with “material brighter than the natural bedrock,” which was usually chalk taken from another location.
The hill figure creators were not as prolific as those who made the Nazca Lines. According to Brian Haughton in “The White Horse of Uffington,” “there are 56 hill figures scattered around England, with the vast majority on the chalk downlands of the southern part of the country.”
Hill figures served a variety of purposes. For instance, in “Chalk Figures,” Ellen Castelow traces the roots of the Cerne Abbas Giant back to the Celts. She argues that the Cerne Abbas Giant “was identified as Hercules and associated with a fertility cult.” There is even a fertility ritual associated with the Cerne Abbas Giant:
Until 1635 a maypole was set up near the giant and today ‘courting couples’ still make night-time pilgrimages up to the giant to make sure that their marriage will be blessed with children! Women it seems are supposed to roll over the giant’s ‘male appendage’ to make sure that their fertility will be enhanced!!
The Cerne Abbas Giant – 011.jpg
Researchers have also speculated that the Uffington White Horse is a Celtic religious symbol. Catelow notes that the Uffington White Horse “probably represents a Celtic God” and that a “similar ‘horse’ is featured on old Celtic coins from 150BC.” Haughton presents some information that supports Catelow’s ideas:
Others, however, see the White Horse as connected with the worship of Belinos or Belinus, ‘the shining one’, a Celtic sun god often associated with horses. Bronze and Iron Age sun chariots, mythological representations of the sun in a chariot, were shown as being pulled by horses, as can be seen from the 14th century BC example from Trundholm in Denmark. If, as is now believed, the Celts were settled in Britain at the latest by the end of the Bronze Age, then the White Horse could still be interpreted as a Celtic horse-goddess symbol.
By USGS (World Wind (go)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The head of the White Horse of Uffington.jpg
The Whipsnade White Lion is an example of a hill figure used for advertising. Created in the 1930s, it marks the location of the Whipsnade Zoo so that the zoo can be easily spotted from the road or in the air.
Whipsnade White Lion – geograph.org.uk – 112460.jpg
Here are some more examples of hill figures:
Windover Hill with Long Man.JPG
Bulford, England. Chalk Kiwi from Postcard, c.1918.jpg
While the Nazca Lines remained intact for thousands of years because of their desert location, hill figures are more vulnerable to changes in the environment. They need constant maintenance. Otherwise, grass and vegetation will grow over them, and they will disappear.
Over the years, efforts have been made to maintain and restore some of them, such as the Osmington White Horse below. Wikipedia notes that the upkeep of some of the hill figures is done by local people who “often work regularly to restore or maintain a local landmark.” Hopefully, these geoglyphs will be around in the years to come so that they can be appreciated by future generations.
Source: “Hill figure” – Wikipedia
Osmington white horse.jpg
By Rupert Phillip Acott (Life time: 1941) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Osmington White Horse – geograph.org.uk – 1257182.jpg