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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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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