4000BC – 3200BC EARLY NEOLITHIC
Wayland’s Smithy is located on the The Ridgeway three quarters of a mile north-east of the B4000 Ashbury to Lambourn Road in Oxfordshire (although in some literature it is described as being in Berkshire which reflects a change of county boundaries at some point after the site was excavated).
The weather was every bit as good as the forecast had promised, pleasantly crisp with blue sky and sunshine all day long, ideal for a walk in the beautiful English landscape. So I parked in the National Trust car park at the top of White Horse Hill and, following my traditional fight with the parking ticket machine (it came off better, as is usual),wandered towards Dragon Hill, a striking flat-topped hill a little reminiscent of Silbury Hill though natural rather than man-made, via The Manger, a valley with eye-catching rippled sides known as the Giant’s Steps that are the product of retreating permafrost during the last Ice Age.
I had a little look at Uffington Castle, an Iron Age Hill fort with a nice bank and ditch surrounding it, and then headed off down The Ridgeway path in the direction of Wayland’s Smithy which is about a half hour walk from the car park.
The archaeology bit
I’d never been to this Neolithic chambered long barrow before but had been meaning to for ages. It inhabits a very pleasant setting in a small copse on the edge of The Ridgeway path with far-reaching views beyond. I tried to imagine how it would have looked within the landscape without the trees around it. It would have been noticeable but not overbearingly so; the sort of place you would seek out in the knowledge of its existence or happen upon when in the area, perhaps.
Human remains of fourteen people have been found here and their burials dated to between 3590–3555 BC and the last in 3580–3550 BC, that is to a maximum period of fifteen years, which is less than a generation. They were actually buried in an earlier ovoid structure upon which the barrow seen today was subsequently built between 3460 and 3400 BC. It is trapezoid in form and much larger than its earlier counterpart. Apart from anything else, the building of this later structure over the previous one makes Wayland’s Smithy intriguing.
Of the fourteen human remains recovered from the earlier structure, eleven have been identified as male; all of them except one were adults. Demographically speaking, it has been suggested that gender was more important than age as a factor for burial rites at this time, in southern England although not necessarily in other regions. The reason for the short period of usage is interesting to consider and a study has found that three of the individuals buried there may have been killed by arrow shot and it has been suggested that the burials may have been the consequence of a massacre. This would not be an isolated case of violence in the Neolithic; indeed conflict appears to have been part of life for people during that time, possibly coinciding with the advent of causewayed enclosures and their role in society. But that’s another story for another day. Another possible explanation for this potentially mass burial if the interment phase was at the shorter end of the scale is that of death due to disease.
There are various other Neolithic burial mounds nearby, used up until Saxon times, and it can be wondered how these might have related to Wayland’s Smithy and how beliefs and rituals may have evolved and transcended the different eras over time.
As an aside, dog burials have often been found at Neolithic sites including Wayland’s Smithy, sometimes in association with human skulls. These have been interpreted as potentially demonstrating a significant relationship between dogs and people in life or death or perhaps transitionally between the two. Remains of piglets were also found amongst the rest of the animal bones at Wayland’s Smithy and the reasons behind the deposition of these and of animals generally, including baby animals, on Neolithic sites are very much open to interpretation. Reasons suggested include grave goods to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife, votive offerings to the gods, or simply the remains of feasting.
For a brief few minutes today there was nobody else around and yet it had a friendly, comforting feel to it, I thought. That may have been largely due to the sunny afternoon though; if the weather had been a bit more inclement there it might have taken on a moodier demeanour. I’m not sure though: even with the light tree cover it still feels quite open and its position on the Ridgeway seems to make it part of things these days rather than something too isolated and foreboding. There were also lots of people on the Ridgeway path going to and from the barrow: ramblers, dog walkers, cyclists; it felt a little like being on a pilgrimage. I would like to visit in different conditions at different times of the year just to see how it feels and to try to understand how Neolithic people may have viewed Wayland’s Smithy within the landscape of their day-to-day lives.
Originally known as ‘Weland’s Smithy’, Wayland’s Smithy is a product of the past mystical beliefs around metalworking and Wayland (aka Weland, Volund and Volundr) was either the Saxon god of metalworking or an invisible elfin smith, depending on your point of view. According to local legend, if you leave your horse tethered there, along with a coin, then you will return to find that he has re-shod it in your absence. If I had a horse I would have tried this out. Apparently a 13th century Norse poem, the Volundarkitha, tells the tale of Wayland but there are earlier mentions of aspects of the story in the poems Beowulf and Deor’s Lament.
On the way back to the car park I stood at the top of the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse but, of course, being so close it looked nothing like a horse. After I left the car park in my car I tried briefly to find a viewpoint for the horse in its entirety but failed and so no picture of that, I’m afraid. I also failed to find the White Horse pub at Woolstone, or rather, I was distracted by signs for the Fox and Hounds in Uffington itself. It’s a cosy old pub although one with the television on (horse racing) and music playing concurrently (Elton John). The real ale selection was limited so I settled on Bob which is a very nice beer from the Wickwar brewery in Gloucestershire. It’s also worth checking out the toilet seat in the Ladies’ loos.
Field, D. 2006 Earthen long barrows: the earliest monuments in the British Isles, Stroud: Tempus
Smith, M. & Brickley, M. 2009 People of the Long Barrows, Stroud: The History Press
Whittle, A., Healy, F. & Bayliss, A., Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland. Vol. 2. 2011, Oxford: Oxbow
http://www.berkshirehistory.com/legends/smithy02.html, accessed 11.01.14
http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-horse-hill, accessed 11.01.14