Location

2 miles south of Compton Beauchamp, near Swindon, Oxfordshire.

 

Overview

Wayland's Smithy is a splendid long barrow which adjoins the Ridgeway, and is a short walk from The White Horse and Uffington Castle. It can be a difficult site to access; the official path begins at the White Horse Hill car park and follows the Ridgeway for 1 miles, but the more astute of navigators will discover that there is a road branching off the B4507 which connects with the Ridgeway just a few hundred yards from Wayland's Smithy. The name of the monument is Saxon in origin; Wayland being the Germanic blacksmith god, and the earliest English settlers possibly identified such a mysterious and ancient landmark, surely beyond the skill of mortal man, with his work.

 

The barrow was constructed in two stages. Wayland's Smithy I, now invisible, was built sometime between 3590 and 3555 BC, consisting of a sarsen stone floor with a timber chamber erected over it, and two split tree trunks set vertically at either end. It is a curious monument for several reasons. First, it was only in use for a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 15 years. Also an excavation in 1963 revealed the remains of eleven men, two women, and a child inside; some of them having seemingly suffered violent deaths. Three may have been killed by arrows, and two of the bodies had been ill-used by scavenging animals before they were interred. It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions but this evidence seems to suggest that some may have been slain in combat, and that two could not be immediately recovered from the spot where they had fallen. After between 40 and 100 years of its existence, Wayland's Smithy I was closed with a large mound of earth and chalk placed over it, measuring some 8 x 15 metres across. This material was not taken from anywhere, but had been deliberately excavated from the flanks of the monument, cutting two slightly curved, almost symmetrical ditches either side of it.

 

Thereafter the site may have remained inactive for up to 20 years, but the community which founded it must have continued to hold it in esteem because they returned, between 3460 and 3400 BC, to construct a second barrow directly over the top of it, using a few techniques that mimic the construction of the first and seem to pay tribute to it. Even so, there were significant differences; firstly it was much larger, but also, while the first tomb was mostly timber-built with a stone floor, the second was entirely of stone. The reason for this shift is not clear. It could be that it demonstrates a progression in tomb-building technology, favouring stone, as a more permanent means of honouring the ancestors, over perishable wood. Yet we can only guess wildly at the factors which may have affected religious matters at this time; honouring the ancestors with a more remarkable achievement, or else inflating the tribal ego by stamping their authority on the landscape, these are the usual modern theories that are put forward when, in all honesty, nobody has any idea. They are perfectly plausible explanations based on our understanding of human nature, yet it must be understood that we know almost nothing about these people and their customs, and so such theories should be treated with extreme caution as they may well be spectacularly wide of the mark.

 

The most striking feature of Wayland's Smithy II are the four great sarsens that stand either side of the entrance. Originally there were six of these, but only four were recovered during the excavations of the 1960's: having fallen over, they were subsequently restored to their upright positions. Standing directly in front of the barrow it is easy to see where the missing ones once stood; obvious gaps are evident on the extreme left and between the two existing stones on the right (see this photograph). In the centre of these sarsens is a stone-lined passage that leads to the entrance, which, itself, is formed by two opposing pillars, standing about five feet tall, with two shorter pillars beyond these. The far wall is sealed by horizontally-stacked stones, and overhead a large slab forms the roof. The two burial chambers oppose each other on either side of this passageway, and the entrances to each are formed by the gaps in between the two sets of pillars.

 

These chambers, similarly stone-clad with separate slabs forming their roof, are very confined and can only be entered in a squatting position. Archeological investigations began in 1920, though by this time the graves had been ransacked, yet inside were found the assorted remnants of seven adults and a child. It is believed that people were buried here for less than a century after its construction before the barrow was closed.

 

In a manner very similar to the first tomb, a great trapezoidal mound of earth, 56 metres long and tapering gently to the northern end (a feature very similar to West Kennet), was placed over the tomb, covering Wayland's Smithy I completely. Again the material was excavated from two symmetrical ditches dug 10 metres from either flank. The edges of this mound were also lined by dozens of smaller stones, only a few of which now remain.

 

Photographs

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