What’s It Like to Travel the Oldest Road in the World? Think Dragon’s Blood and Neolithic Barrows
I have recently been following what may be the world’s oldest road. Remarkably, much of it still survives as an ancient track. Created around 5500 years ago, it predates the Egyptian pyramids by a thousand years and the first major urban civilization of Sumer in Mesopotamia by seven centuries. Those who built it were Stone Age people of the Neolithic period, before the invention of metal tools. Called the Ridgeway, it is 87 miles (140 kilometers) long and runs across central-southern England.
Map showing the Ridgeway in southern Britain, possibly the oldest road in the world. (© Graham Phillips)
The original road is thought to have been a dry trail, built up by piling earth and rubble into a raised cross-section, with a ditch to either side to prevent its flooding, and in parts it was actually paved. Even though there have been older pathways found elsewhere in the world, such as short log-covered tracks in India and the Middle East, the Ridgeway is the oldest known road to link separate and otherwise isolated settlements. The best preserved section joins some astonishing and very ancient monuments.
Uffington White Horse
At Uffington, around 60 miles (96 km) west of London, the Ridgeway passes an Iron Age hill fort dating from around 700 BC. Covering some eight acres, it is surrounded by a double arrangement of defensive earthen embankments and ditches that would once have included wooden stockades and gatehouses.
The Ridgeway running past Uffington, England. (© Graham Phillips)
Right next to it is a huge, 360-foot-long (110 meters) figure of a stylized horse, carved into the chalk rock of the hillside to be seen for miles around.
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The White Horse chalk carving. At least 2000 years old, it may have represented the Celtic goddess Epona. (© Graham Phillips)
Called the Uffington White Horse, it dates from at least two thousand years ago and its purpose remains a mystery. It may have depicted the horse goddess Epona , an important deity for the Celts who ruled Britain from around 2700 years ago until the Romans conquered the country in the first century AD.
Close by is Dragon Hill, a natural chalk mound with an artificially flattened top. This construction may be as old as the ancient road itself and was painstakingly created by a people using nothing but Stone Age tools. Again, its purpose is unknown but was probably used for ceremonial purposes. Legend holds that this is where England’s patron saint, St. George, killed a dragon – hence its name— and an area on the top where grass fails to grow is said to be where the beast’s blood fell.
Saint George Killing the Dragon (1435) ( Public Domain )
Ancient Barrow of Norse Weapon-Forging God
A mile or so further along the Ridgeway to the west is what scholars believe to be Britain’s oldest surviving monument; it predates the arrival of the Celts from continental Europe by almost three thousand years. It is a Neolithic long barrow, a rock-chambered tomb covered with earth, its entrance flanked by four shaped standing stones, the tallest over ten feet high. The barrow is 43 feet wide and 185 feet long and is thought to have contained the remains of as many as fourteen bodies. They were probably the family of the high-status individuals, priests or chieftains, who ruled the area as long ago as 5300 years, and might have been those responsible for flattening Dragon Hill.
Wayland's Smithy, an ancient burial site over 5000 years old. (© Graham Phillips)
Like Dragon Hill, there is a legend attached to the site. It is said to have been the place where the Norse weapon-forging god once dwelt, and the structure is still named after him: Wayland's Smithy.
Böðvildr in Weyland's Smithy , John Gehring (1883) ( Public Domain )
Enigmatic Avebury Stone Circle
Today the Ridgeway is a sandy track running through countryside unchanged for centuries, and, traveling southwestward, once it makes its way through the Wanborough Plain, various round hillocks can be seen to either side. Called round barrows or tumuli, these were the burial mounds of the people who probably built the largest stone circle in Britain. Standing beside the Ridgeway, Avebury Stone Circle is so large that it completely surrounds half the village of Avebury after which it is named.