Wayland’s Smithy

Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow

Wayland’s Smithy – sometimes called ‘Wayland’s Smithy Cave’ – is a Neolithic long barrow, or burial chamber, located in a copse of beech trees close to the ancient Ridgeway Path and the steep scarp slope of the Berkshire Downs, now in the county of Oxfordshire.

waylands-smithy-in-oxfordshire-uk

Map of Oxfordshire showing the location of Wayland’s Smithy. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, created using OS data. Creative Commons. (Annotations added by Millie Thom)

It overlooks the beautiful Vale of White Horse – so named after the famous Uffington White Horse barely two miles from Wayland’s Smithy.

There are many barrows in this region, both round and long, but Wayland’s Smithy is the only long barrow in Oxfordshire (Berkshire pre-1974 *). In neighbouring Wiltshire, the county in which Stonehenge is located, there are 260 long barrows, over half of Britain’s total.

The excavations carried out in the 1960s showed that Wayland’s Smithy was built in two stages:

Wayland’s Smith 1 is now invisible. It was a mortuary structure with a stone floor surrounded by sarsen stones and chalk built between 3590 and 3555 BC. Fourteen bodies were discovered in here in 1963: eleven men and three women. They appeared to have suffered violent deaths, possibly from arrow wounds, which would suggest battle. Two of the bodies had been gnawed by animals. This original mound was partly destroyed when the second barrow was constructed:

Wayland’s Smithy 2, built between 3460 and 3400 BC, was a much larger barrow built over the top of the first. It consisted of a 55 metre/almost 200 foot-long earth mound with a sarsen kerb and outlying ditches. The south entrance to the tomb was blocked by six large sarsen stones. Today, only four of the stones remain, but it is easy to see where the missing two once stood, particularly in the first photo of this post. A six metre-long earth passage leads through an antechamber into the burial chamber.

This larger, more obvious barrow was first excavated in 1919. Eight bodies were found in the burial chamber, one of a child, but no grave goods were present, nor were there any thigh bones with the skeletons! Wild animals again…? Victorian research…?

So why has this ancient burial site become known as Wayland’s Smithy?

There are various forms of the legend associated with this site. Most of them centre round the Anglo-Saxon Weland/Wolund/Volund. Weland was a Germanic smith-god, so it seems evident that the name of the site was applied by the Anglo Saxons… four thousand years after the mound was constructed.

volund

An illustration of Völundr (Weland/Wayland). Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

One story has it that Weland/Wayland was the son of the great God-Giant, Wade, King of the Finns. By the time he was an adult, Wayland’s metalworking skills far surpassed those of his tutors.. This is an interesting and entertaining story, but far too long to relate here. If anyone would like to read it, it can be found on the site, Royal Berkshire History, and another version of it can be found on Wikipedia. I’ll just say that after many incidents and escapades, the Wayland in both of these stories still ends up at his smithy high up on the Berkshire Downs.

Another story tells us that Weland was an invisible elvin smith of outstanding skill who lived in the long barrow: Wayland the Smith. Some versions even tell us he was a lord of the elves. If a traveller’s horse should lose a shoe, a penny left in the roofstone of the right-hand burial chamber – traditionally known as ‘The Cave’ – the horse would be reshod by the time the owner returned to collect it.

Both of these stories include Wayland’s ‘run in’ with the cruel, Germanic king, Nidudr, or Niduth. In this tale, Wayland was captured by this Swedish king, Nidudr, lamed (by being hamstrung) to prevent him escaping and forced to work in the king’s smithy. In revenge, Wayland killed the king’s two sons and made drinking cups from their skulls, with jewels made from their eyes, and a brooch from their teeth. He then sent these to Nidudr. His final act of revenge was to rape the king’s daughter, who had brought a gold ring for him to mend, before flying away by magic.

Fun story, eh?

I’ve been to Wayland’s Smithy many times, and we never fail to say ‘hello’ to the White Horse while we’re up on the Ridgeway. I’ll devote a post to this handsome feature – er, creature –another time.

uffington-white-horse-sat

Satellite view of the Uffington White Horse. Source: World Wind Author: USGS  Public Domain

I have to admit, I love this whole area. It was all part of the kingdom of Wessex in King Alfred the Great’s time (9th century) and Alfred was born in Wantage, one of the springline settlements at the foot of the Berkshire Downs escarpment.

Wayland’s Smithy no longer plays a part in my books about King Alfred, but it did when I first wrote Book One – which was initially historical fantasy. It took a long time to change it into straight historical fiction! I decided fantasy really didn’t suit a story about the famous King Alfred, despite there being many fanciful myths about him burning the cakes and sneaking into the Viking camp disguised as a wandering minstrel.

***

I decided to write this post partly because it’s on my long list of history-type posts ‘to do’, but mostly because my blogging friend Amanda (Forestwoodfolkart) over there in Australia featured Wayland’s Smithy as her Monday’s Mystery Photo last week. The information may be of interest to anyone who had a guess as to the photo’s location. If you don’t do Amanda’s weekly challenge, and would like to have a go at the many interesting photos she shows, hop over to her blog, Something to Ponder About. Amanda also does a great post every Thursday in which she presents different proverbs and quotes for readers to ponder about.

***

* In the UK, many county boundaries were changed in 1974. All this area of the Ridgeway and the Vale of White Horse had been in the county of Berkshire since just before 849 – the year of King Alfred’s birth. In a treaty made with the Kingdom of Mercia, Alfred’s father, King Aethelwulf of Wessex, was given a small area of  Mercia, which became a new Wessex shire of Berkshire. Today, all this area is in Oxfordshire – yet the rolling chalk hills known locally as the Downs, are still called the Berkshire Downs.

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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30 Responses to Wayland’s Smithy

  1. Joy Pixley says:

    Such a fascinating mystery, to wonder who these people were, and who went to so much effort to bury them here. And why did they build the second mound on top of an earlier one? I can imagine so many possible stories!

    Interesting background into Wayland and the various myths about the god. A great illustration of how what is considered heroic and appropriate god behavior changes over time as culture changes.

    The White Horse is amazing, and definitely deserves its own post. I can see why you like this region so much, Millie!

    • milliethom says:

      The people who built Wayland’s Smithy could have lived close by on the Downs – or even down in the Vale – and agriculture had been introduced, so they would be growing crops. It isn’t certain (and probably never will be) why the earlier burial chamber was left. It was thought to have been in use no more than 15 years and was closed off between 40 and 100 years later with material from the flanks of the structure. It was left untouched for another twenty or so years, then the people seemed to have just returned and built the second barrow over the top. I’ve looked at several sites, and there is no evidence for why people either left or came back. Perhaps they wanted to be closer to the great stone circles at Avebury or Stonehenge further west. The Ridgeway Path was an ancient route across the top of the Downs used by travellers and pilgrims on their way to these stone circles for gatherings of all kinds, like solstice celebrations. Who knows what conflicts went on between tribes, either. It is all very much still mystery, and early Anglo-Saxon beliefs are interesting, too. Those gods seem to get up to an awful lot of mischief at times. 🙂

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I’d imagine that whatever reason the first people had for siting the burial mound there, it could be the same reason for the later people to build in the same place– some idea about that particular place being holy, or the site of something special. But then, I can imagine a lot of things!

      • milliethom says:

        Copses of trees were often viewed as sacred places to people of ancient times. Most around Europe tend to be copses of oak, but not exclusively. The barrow in the copse of beech trees is well shaded from the sun’s glare and does have a very peaceful and even mystical feel to it. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild standing in this place. Spirits of the dead, as well as of the natural world around them… Your imagination would probably go into overdrive! Lol. 🙂

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I imagine (ha ha) that it would!

  2. draliman says:

    Wow, that was a long time ago. It’s weird thinking of people building stuff like this in the thousands BC. If you believe the 1950s B movies, back then they were wearing furs and fighting dinosaurs heh heh 🙂
    It’s quite fascinating reading about the old kingdoms of Britain and how they merged and evolved.

    • milliethom says:

      It’s amazing how far on we’ve moved since the ’50s when it comes to dating things in the past. There are so many methods of dating rocks, soils and bones etc now. I think you’re talking about the old Raquel Welch film here (1 Million Years BC). Dinosaurs had died out by 65 million years BC as far as I know! Yes, the film became quite a joke – including RW’s hilarious bikini-style fur outfit!
      The history of the British Isles is so interesting and the old AS kingdoms eventually evolved into England. But populations and political regions constantly change, so who knows what the future holds? Cornwall/Kernow may yet become independent, Ali, so don’t give up your hopes on that one. Haha 🙂

  3. irinadim says:

    What a beautiful view of the Vale of White Horse! England is so wonderfully green and so rich in ancient monuments. Did you have a peek into the burial chamber? 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, England is very green, Irina, like the rest of Britain. Apart from a few odd drought years, we have a lot of rain, even in the summer – which is why we’re forever moaning, of course. 🙂 The south-east region (Kent, Sussex and Surrey – and the London area) is the driest part of the country. But, you’re right, the rain keeps the countryside looking lovely.
      We went inside Wayland’s Smithy a few times when we moved down there in the ’70s but we haven’t been inside recently. I believe visitors can still go inside since English Heritage took over management of the site. I know people often leave coins or flowers inside – coins probably for Weland/Wayland the Smith, and flowers perhaps for the dead who were buried in there? Taking photos would probably be impossible, though (with our cameras, at least!) because it’s so dim.

  4. cynthiamvoss says:

    Thank you for sharing your photos and experience of visiting. Weyland doesn’t have such a nice story, but thanks for telling us more about the history of the place! Always a pleasure reading about your trips.

  5. Christy B says:

    The part about making drinking cups from skulls made me shiver.. quite the tale! But on a more positive note I enjoyed learning about this wonderful region! It was nice to visit there with you 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, making cups from people’s skulls doesn’t bear thinking about. But anything can happen in myths, I suppose. 🙂 Thank you, Christy, for enjoying the flying visit to Oxfordshire. The region gets lots of visitors and I’ve no doubt it gets even more ‘virtual’ ones. 🙂

  6. Antonia says:

    I love the satellite view of the Uffington White Horse. How interesting that these deaths are all mysteries. Another place I would love to visit!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Antonia. The White Horse is a fabulous thing. There are several chalk figures in Britain, but this is my favourite, and not all are horses. I intend to do a post about them soon. If you love history, Antonia, we have it in bucketfulls here. This White Horse gets coachloads of visitors every year, many of them American, but we also have a lot from all round the world. Wayland’s Smithy is only a short walk away, too.

  7. Aquileana says:

    Great post , dear Millie… not only beautiful but very interesting and informative. The Satellite view of the Uffington White Horse looked familiar to me at first sight… I am sure I have seen it online… But now I know what it represents and its association to Wayland’s Smithy… Thanks so much for sharing!… all my best wishes. Aquileana 🙂

  8. milliethom says:

    Thank you, Aquileana! 🙂 This particular White Horse is very famous because it’s 3000 years old, so you may well have seen it online or even a TV documentary. t’s only two miles from Wayland’s Smithy, so a visit to both is a must when we go there. I intend to do a post about the hill figures of Britain very soon. 🙂

  9. I am with Antonia. The white Uffington horse is incredible. I can’t wait to read the post about that. How? Why? etc… Thanks for the mention too, and the wonderful explanation of this structure. It certainly confused a few of my readers. Especially the Monday Mystery champion, Drake! That is a real feat, as he knows all the places….. [I also love that this area was where Alfred and the Vikings hung out!} That is cool!!!

  10. milliethom says:

    Hi Amanda. I’ve started to put together a post about the hill figures of Britain and will post it some time during the week. The White Horse has always been my favourite, partly because it’s the oldest partly because we lived close to it for six years and partly because this was Alfred’s area. His famous Battle of Ashdown was fought somewhere up on the Ridgeway. The Horse does get a mention in Book 2 of my trilogy. Some of the other figures are interesting, too, although they’re nowhere near as old.
    I think Drake did well to guess at Surrey. He wasn’t too far off the mark.

  11. I love these sites and their mysteries and speculations. Thank you for the history Millie!

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, I love these kind of sites, too (no Selkies in sight though 🙂 ) As you know from all your visits to Scottish and Irish sites, they have a definite aura of mystery – and even mysticism – about them. It would have been a sacred site, in a sacred grove of beech trees. Thank you for reading, Cybele.

  12. inesephoto says:

    Such a wonderful post, Millie! I have learned so much, as usual. Grateful for the people who love and know history, and do a great job of preserving all these ancient sites.

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