The Archaeology of Weland the Smith

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

A Tasty Sub

In a previous post, I reported on my attendance and the rich range of papers presented at the Subterranean in the Medieval World conference this weekend. From hell-mouths to cross-shafts, from dragons to canals, bed-burials to catacombs, all manner of related and evolving underworlds known from medieval texts, maps, manuscripts, material cultures and landscapes were explored in a session superbly organised by art historians Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner. A successful conference and there was a super interdisciplinary dialogue between delegates and speakers. I forgot that I was one of only a handful of archaeologists there and felt very at home with the debates and evidence; everyone was so welcoming and the themes fascinating and engaging. I was lucky enough to be the keynote talk.

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

The Keynote

In the previous post, I outlined the introduction to my keynote, and some of the approaches I think we need to develop in thinking about the medieval subterranean. Here I want to sketch some of the preliminary ideas I used to apply this approach to a case study: the Archaeology of Weland the Smith, focusing on one of the case studies in my ongoing ‘Past in its Place’ project: Wayland’s Smithy (Oxfordshire, formerly Berkshire).

Weland the Smith on the Franks Casket (Wikimedia Commons)

Weland in the Later Anglo-Saxon Imagination

There is evidence that the story of Weland the Smith – best known from the Lay of Volundr – a 13th-century Icelandic poem – was known in pre-Viking England. The irrefutable evidence for this is a whalebone casket dated to the early eighth century: the Franks’ Casket. On the casket, the captive and hamstrung artisan is depicted in his smithy killing the king’s sons (one headless corpse apepars beneath his feet) and presenting a vessel, presumably made from the skull of one of the sons to the king’s daughter. Wayland is an infamous murderer and rapist. He exacts revenge using these modes of violence on the king who had imprisoned him. He then escapes in a flying machine made of swan’s wings. In this image, the king’s daughter is accompanied by another woman while there is a ?boy (or Egil, Wayland’s brother) to the right capturing swans.

Weland also appears in late Anglo-Saxon literature. Beowulf has a mailshirt made by Weland. When Alfred the Great translated Fabricius as Weland from Boethius’s Consolidation of Philosophy. Alfred showed a knowledge of the famed elven smith but also a strong sense that, for a Christian king, it is apposite that he is not located:

“Where are now the bones of that wise and famous goldsmith Weland? … Where are the bones of Weland now, and who knows now where they may be?”

Wayland’s Smithy

Amidst the many supernatural toponyms known from later Anglo-Saxon sources and recently exhaustively appraised by Sarah Semple in her superb book Perceptions of the Prehistoric Past in Anglo-Saxon England, there is one that has fascinated Anglo-Saxonists since the nineteenth century; the attribution to a Neolithic tomb as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’.

In the charter bounds for Compton Beauchamp in AD 955 it says: “‘along the furrow until it comes to the wide gate east of Wayland’s Smithy (Yelandes Smiððan”). This name is preserved in later sources as referring to a Neolithic chambered tomb of the Cotswold-Severn tradition, a monument that saw excavation in 1921 and then in the early 1960s and dates to the 36th and 35th centuries BC.

By focusing on thinking further about why this specific monument, in that specific location, received the place-name association with Wayland, and why more specifically still, it was referred to as his ‘smithy’ (not his tomb or anything else), I hoped to discuss how we can be more specific in thinking about the particular choices made in allocating myths and legends to ancient monuments in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape.


The reconstructed facade at Wayland’s Smithy – the monument would not have looked like this in the Early Middle Ages when some of these stones may have already toppled.

The Materiality of Wayland’s Smithy

I proposed that Wayland’s Smithy can be better understood by scrutinising its distinctive form and materiality. It was not simply a stone monument, but one that may have been overtly megalithic, strikingly unique for the vicinity. I reviewed the archaeology and noted a range of other potential discoveries – stone, bone and metal that, if similar had been found in the Early Middle Ages, might have prompted an association with Wayland’s Smithy. I suggested that, in the Anglo-Saxon mind, stone and bone were as associated with Weland as metalworking.

IMG_20140516_0006 (2)

Dragon Hill, Uffington (after Miles 2003).

The Landscape Context of Wayland’s Smithy

I then looked at the landscape of Wayland’s Smithy, suggesting that its significance as a landmark may have derived from its association outside a ‘gate’ on the Ridgeway that allowed access to an ancient historic route and one used by Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. I suggested that Wayland’s Smithy became peripheral to a complex monumental landscape focusing on the striking topogrpahy of Dragon Hill and the Manger to the east. Including multiple Iron Age hillforts and the famous White Horse, this was a landscape of myth and memory and Wayland’s Smithy was at its edge. The prominence yet peripheral character of this monument may have made it a locale of local, regional and supraregional importance and fame in the later Anglo-Saxon period.

Uffington White Horse

Uffington White Horse

Weland’s Bones and the Bones of Weland

I have not published on these issues, so I haven’t given all the details of my arguments here. Still, I hope this is enough to whet your appetite for more forthcoming research from the Past in its Place project. My argument is that Wayland’s Smithy was another ambivalent ancient monument in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape, one that became associated with the elven smith because it was on the edge of a monumental complex, and perhaps also because it was a place where the Anglo-Saxons had discovered, not the discrete burials they would have expected from a funerary monument, and not the tomb of Weland, but the results of his craft.

By this I do not refer to the discovery of Anglo-Saxon burials, and perhaps not only metal deposited there in the Iron Age, but the stones and bones which may have been associated with Weland and the making of his grisly treasures…

Subterranean at York

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

Going Underground

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire (historically in Berkshire)

I have just returned from a weekend attending the two-day interdisciplinary conference: Subterranean in the Medieval World, hosted by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and organised by Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner.

There were 18 papers on different dimensions of the subterranean – imagined and encountered – in the medieval world from art historians, literary scholars, archaeologists and historians with papers extending from Italy to Iceland and Ireland but with a focus on the island of Britain.

Presentations explored themes from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries but with an early medieval focus, looking at spiritual and tangible relationships with the earth, its stones, surfaces and depths. Plenty of source material was employed, from crypts and catacombs to manuscripts, art and artefacts. Still, I was delighted to see varied uses of stone sculpture and burial evidence utilised extensively in many of the presentations.

On the Saturday evening, there was also a wonderful conference meal allowing plenty of opportunities to chat with the other delegates and speakers. Wine and whiskey was consumed.


West Kennet long barrow

Engaging with Underworlds

I had the privilege of being asked to present the keynote address to the conference and I did so by starting off with some general concerns and issues I have with perceptions of material traces of the past in the Early Middle Ages, and the tenacious desire to tie all aspects of monument reuse into models of mass-migration and the replacement of earlier peoples, the process of Christian conversion, and ‘kingdom formation’ in the seventh century.

Whilst I acknowledged that these are far from irrelevant, we need to explore more contextually the many potential reasons and situations in which ancient monuments and old things were redeployed in ritual, social and economic life. With regards to the underworld, this involves thinking about monument reuse and engagements with below-ground in terms of many agents which facilitated discoveries from the past (from winds blowing over trees, to pigs digging into the ground, to agricultural work and exploring natural fissures and caves).

I then talked about digging graves and tombs as one particular strategy of engaging with the underworld, one that would have involved both digging and depositing, but also closing off and imagining, rediscovering and encountering the dead. I also flagged up the possibility that some architectures were designed to imply the presence of the dead beneath their surfaces. I have been writing about hogback stones in this regard.

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Me feeling a bit Welsh

Ancestors and Heroes?

I also abused my privilege to defend myself against the accusation of illogically employing the term ‘ancestors’ in my previous research on monument reuse…  I couldn’t resist showing that in my previous writings, while I conceded that the term is problematic, I hadn’t claimed that barrows and earthworks reused as burial sites were exclusively and widely perceived as ancestral as such, but that their reuse facilitated the construction of ancestral connections; this is not the same thing.

The Pillar of Eliseg and the Creation of Ancestors

This is suggested by my own collaborative research at the Pillar of Eliseg, and already discussed in print by myself and by Professor Nancy Edwards. As part of the opening of my talk, I suggested that, for the Pillar of Eliseg where we excavated secondary Bronze Age cremation burials in cists, the choice to put a prominent ninth-century cross upon this site was a strategy of drawing upon imagined lengthy and distant pasts. This was a past in which imagined ancestors and heroes (whether imagined as ancestors or not) were a key potential component of the commemorative strategy.

The empirical basis for this argument is not only the Latin text that refers to these ancestors and/or heroes, it was the materiality of the mound itself. Here, I argued that monument reuse is material practice, a physical engagement with place, not simply a rewriting or overwriting. The shallow multiple secondary graves of earlier date and contrasting form to those of ninth-century times (when west-east inhumation burial was commonplace) would have been readily encountered in the Early Middle Ages in the mound beneath the site chosen for the Pillar.

Whether this argument works for all times and all places in the early medieval period, and whether all ancient burial monuments were regarded as funerary and ancestral, is of course a problematic issue. And it was to this issue, of how ancient monuments were perceived in the later Anglo-Saxon, Christian world of hierarchical social structures and increasingly powerful kingdoms, that the rest of my paper aimed to address.

In a future post I will review my keynote lecture, focusing on the Archaeology of Weland the Smith.