Geoglyphs (land pictures) are usually large artworks that have been etched into the landscape and are best viewed from above. These are the top ten best and most mysterious geoglyph sites – three of which are in the United Kingdom. All of these geoglyphs around the World can be seen using Google Earth.
UFFINGTON WHITE HORSE
Located near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, England, it is one of the oldest and most famous geoglyphs in the world. Using modern OSL dating, it is calculated that it was first created around 1,000 BC.
The figure is believed to be that of a stylised running horse although a review of the original head structure and curvature of the legs has caused some researchers to suggest that it actually a represents a large cat from the lion or leopard family. However, as early references from Abbingdon Abbey, which date back to 1072 AD, refer to the area where it is found as “Mons Albi Equi” (Hill-White-Equine) it is generally accepted to be a horse.
What is most remarkable is that the figure was created by carving through turf to reveal the white chalk underneath. As such it requires regular maintenance, or it will disappear within 150 years. This means there has been an unbroken chain of people prepared to look after this prehistoric monument for 3,000 years.
CERNE ABBAS GIANT
Also known as the Rude Man of Cerne, this huge British geoglyph depicts a naked and priapic man holding a primitive club in his right hand. It is 55 metres in length and 50.5 metres wide if measured from hand to hand. The geoglyph was created by carving through the turf of the hillside to a depth of approximately 30cm to reveal the underlying chalk common in this region. The figure is located close to the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. The date that it was made is uncertain. According to the National Trust there is no record of the Cerne Abbas Giant before 1694 and in 1774, a local historian, the Rev. John Hutchins attributed its creation to the owner of the land, Lord Holles.
Some of the features of the geoglyph have been lost over time and tests have shown that its left hand probably once clutched a severed head. Theories about what it represents range from a political caricature of Oliver Cromwell to an ancient fertility symbol. Features of the Giant are reminiscent of the hero Hercules and this has led to speculation that it may have started as a classical representation and over time the originally smaller genitals were combined with the giant’s navel (belly button) to create the very masculine figure of today.
A significant group of researchers believe that the figure dates back to the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Commodus who is recorded as being a great believer in the cult of Hercules to the point of including the hero’s name in his own. Some say that the Roman Governor of Britain, Ulpius Marcellus may have commissioned the original carving in 183 AD as a tribute to the hero.
THE NEVADO SAJAMA AND GEOGLYPHS
Although they are now hard to see from ground level, and do not depict anything recognisable, the lines etched into the landscape of the Sajama region of Bolivia are almost certainly the largest geoglyphs in the world. Collectively the lines measure in excess of 160,000m and cover an area of 22,525 square kilometres.
They are incredibly straight even across uneven and rugged terrain and form a network of geometric shapes that tend to intersect at shrines, burial towers and small villages. This pattern has led archaeologists to speculate that they probably had a religious significance.
The lines were constructed by removing the dark upper layer of soil to expose the lighter substrate beneath. These geoglyphs were discovered by western explorer-travellers in the late 1920’s and the earliest written account in English was made in 1931(33) by Swiss Professor Aimé Felix Tschiffely who rose to fame after riding on horseback from to Argentina to Washington DC.
THE LONG MAN OF WILMINGTON
Located near to the town of Wilmington in the South Downs (hills) of East Sussex, England, the ‘Long Man’ is a turf-cut figure of a man holding two staves. Historians are uncertain when it was created with estimates ranging from around 1690 AD to as early as 2,000 BC.
With a length of seventy metres it is the tallest anthropomorphic geoglyph in Europe. Over the years aspects of the Long Man of Wilmington have changed. Drawings made by William Burrell in 1766 show that it once held a rake and a scythe although these were probably modifications made after 1710 when the figure was recorded by John Rowley as having facial features and a helmet. In this case the staves were probably once spears.
It is considered a sacred site by Pagans and was probably a representation of an Anglo-Saxon war god. Local residents of Wilmington are said to believe that it is prehistoric dating back to the Neolithic period. In 2010 a large phallus was painted on to the figure similar to that of the Cerne Abbas Giant. This was swiftly removed.
THE PARACAS CANDELABRA
The Paracas Candelabra is a geoglyph excavated on a sandy hillside overlooking Pisco bay on the Paracas peninsular of central eastern Chile. It is almost perfectly aligned north to south and can be seen up to 19 kilometres (12miles) out to sea.
Based on pottery found in the area it is believed to be the work of the pre-Incan Paracas peoples. There is much debate regarding what it represents as it is unlikely that such highly stylised candelabra were in use during the period of its construction. Visually it is similar to some examples of the Atacama Giant Cactus – even down to the fruiting buds. Author Frank Joseph states with certainty that it is a representation of a narcotic plant known as Jimson Weed. Some claim it’s a trident while others suggest it was a landmark built by ancient sailors to help them locate a harbour. Local guides often refer to it as (Candelabro de Tres Brazos) The ‘Candelabra with Three Arms’ or even ‘The Sign of the Three Crosses” although this is likely to have been adopted after the arrival of the Spanish.
It is generally considered unlikely that this geoglyph is related to the mysterious Nazca Lines located only 160 kilometres to the southwest of Paracas. It is remarkable that the design has survived as long as it has given that the word Paracas actually refers to high winds and sandstorms – some of which can last for up to three days.
Traditionally the geoglyph is viewed north to south and from the coast. However, if the design is viewed from the hilltop, it can look like a crucifix supported by two diagonal struts and draped with hanging cloths. It looks as if it will remain a mystery for the foreseeable future.
THE NAZCA LINES / SPIDER
The World’s most famous geoglyphs are probably the pictograms and lines etched into the Pampas de Jumana in Peru. Recognised as the ancient nation that managed to ‘green’ a desert, the Nazca were also skilled artists and craftsmen who decorated not only their pots and clothing with fascinating designs but the entire arid plateau where they lived.
From 400 AD to about 650 AD the Nazca etched countless lines and pictures into the plateau by the simple process of scraping away the upper layer of reddish soil and pebbles to reveal the lighter substrate underneath.
The first European to recognise the Lines was American anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber in 1926. The extraordinary scale of the drawings was first identified by Paul Kosok during the early 1930’s. However, the real exploration of the area was undertaken by his onetime assistant Maria Reiche. Originally a German mathematician, She dedicated her life to studying the Nazca and was the first person to identify a creature in 1946 which turned out to be a gigantic spider. Since then hundreds of lines and more than 30 animals have been recorded including an orca, a new world monkey, fish, sharks, llamas and several types of bird.
The fact that the geoglyphs can only truly be seen from above has led to significant speculation that the Nazca had access to some form of aircraft. Some even more sensationalist writers have claimed that these were meant to be seen by extra-terrestrials. Mainstream archaeologists believe that they were created for a religious purpose most likely connected to water and its importance to the agricultural survival of the Nazca. (Etchings created by the removal of reddish pebbles and soil to reveal lighter substrate)
THE ATACAMA GIANT (Gigante de Tarapacá.)
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is home to the largest collection of pictorial geoglyphs yet discovered. In total more than 5,000 examples have been located and recorded. While many of the figures are of animals and humans one anthropomorphic geoglyph stands out as a mysterious and extraordinary example of ancient land art.
Close to the town of Huara and on the eastern slope of Cerro Unita is the Atacama Giant – a humanoid yet robot-like figure apparently created in the Lluta style which tends to have long narrow legs combined with a square head. At 86 metres in length (not the 115m often quoted) it is the largest human-like ancient geoglyph in the world and 31 metres longer than the Cerne Abbas Giant. It is believed to be a representation of a pre-Incan shaman and is said to be holding a medicine bag and arrow (quill).
The square face may be a stylised representation of a jaguar mask. Experts have estimated that it dates from between 800 and 1400 AD with the most likely date being c. 900 AD. According to some sources the lines extending from the top of the giant’s head represent magical rays and can be used as an astronomical calendar to predict seasons and rainfall. It is also known locally as the Gigante de Tarapacá.
“It is worth noting that similarity between the Atacama Giant and an alien in a space suit continues to be the subject of much debate. The key point is that the ancient artists accurately represented other creatures they drew so why is the ‘Giant’ so stylised?”
THE BLYTHE INTAGLIOS
There are very few examples of large human-like geoglyphs, and these are found mainly in Britain and America. A more recent example, the Marree Man, has appeared in Australia but is probably less than twenty-five years old. This rarity only increases the importance of the Blythe Intaglios.
Located in the Colorado Desert of California and 22km north of Blythe are a number of enormous figures etched into the ground. The largest is a human figure approximately 52 metres in length. Known as anthropomorphic geoglyphs they were probably created by the by Native American Quechan (Yuma) and Mojave peoples and represent the only collective group of human-like figures anywhere in the world.
In total there are approximately 60 humanoid figures. In almost all of the examples studied, the chest and torso has been much more deeply etched than other parts of the body.
They were first discovered by Europeans in 1932 AD and are believed to have been created around 1000 AD but may well be much older. Archaeologists and historians agree that they are most likely representations of figures from Yuman mythology.
THE BOCA DO ACRE AMAZON GEOGLYPHS
While most of the world’s major geoglyphs were first identified many decades ago a new and surprising discovery in Brazil has forced scientists and archaeologists to review their perceptions of pre-Columbian civilisations. Deforestation of the Amazon jungle, particularly in the southwest, has revealed hundreds, if not thousands, of previously unknown geometric geoglyphs that are only visible on satellite images. Circles, squares and interlinking lines have appeared in numerous places and seem to be evidence of a previously unknown civilisation that may have numbered more than 60,000 people.
Hints of these markings first appeared in aerial photographs taken during the 1970’s but it was only when archaeologists started using Google Earth around 2006 than the true scale of deforestation and the number of geoglyphs became apparent. Whether they are cosmetic designs or are the remains of towns and roads must still be confirmed. Of equal importance is whether the area in which they were built was once open land or were these shapes carved out of the jungle?
Believed to date back to between 1000 and 600 AD some excellent examples can be found on Google Earth in the fields around the municipality of Boco do Acre, Brazil. The total site includes 100’s of geometric patterns probably the remains of deep earthworks related to pre-Columbian human habitation in the region.
THE STEPPE GEOGLYPHS OF KAZAKHSTAN
The steppe geoglyphs of Kazakhstan are the world’s largest outdoor art project. They’re also one of the most mysterious. The Turgai region, a remote and largely unknown place, is home to these giant designs that cover thousands of square miles of grassy steppe. But who made them? And why?
They are not known to be religious; they are not known to be burial grounds, they are not known to be astronomical (there’s no evidence of any kind that these shapes were designed by ancient people who understood celestial movements), they’re not territorial markers or roadways, and there’s no obvious reason for their creation.
The earthworks’ formation date has been the subject of significant debate; some accounts place its age at 8,000 years, while others place them closer to 2,800. Some academics think they were made by the nomadic Mahandzhar people, who previously frequented the region.