On this year’s Armistice Day I took an early train from North Wales to Leeds and then on to Bradford where I presented a research seminar on ‘The Archaeology of Weland the Smith’.
The Bradford Talk – The Archaeology of Weland the Smith
As part of the ‘Past in its Place‘ project, exploring intersections between literature and archaeology, I am investigating the archaeological dimensions of the story of Weland the Smith. This is well-worn territory you would think, so I was surprised to find myself rapidly entering into uncharted waters, coming up with new interpretations of familiar artefacts and monuments that are purported to relate to the story of Weland/Volundr known from later Scandinavian sources and famously depicted juxtaposed with the Adoration of the Magi upon the early eighth-century Northumbrian whalebone Franks Casket.
My presentation at Bradford was to c. 50 members of the Archaeological Sciences division of the Faculty of Life Sciences. My many friends and colleagues there are celebrating 40 years of teaching archaeology and archaeological science at Bradford, so it felt a real honour to have the opportunity to present my very interim ideas to a friendly but serious and critical audience of archaeological experts, including mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists.
In my talk, I explored the range of dimensions to the relationship between the Weland story and early medieval material culture, art and monuments . I focused on the materiality and topography of Wayland’s Smithy, and I also reinterpreted the significance of the Franks Casket. Furthermore I introduced some new archaeological data that might be relevant to the Weland legend of metalworking at early medieval high-status sites. This was very much a reprise of a talk I presented to the Subterranean conference at York in the summer.
In one short addition to my talk, I pursued the significance of the depictions of Weland the Smith on tenth-century stone monuments from Yorkshire, having been that very day to St Peter’s Minster, Leeds, and to Leeds Museum where the carvings in question are on display. I have now come to realise, subsequent to my York talk, that these representations are going to have to be integral to my project, whereas earlier I had thought I could avoid dabbling yet again in the dark arts of early medieval stone sculpture. Here’s why:
The Leeds Cross
Before my seminar, I went to St Peter’s, Leeds, to explore the famous tenth-century Leeds cross. This is a 19th-century reconstruction of 10 sandstone fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft found following its discovery in 1838 when the church’s tower was pulled down (Leeds 1, according to Elizabeth Coatsworth’s numbering in her Corpus volume for West Yorkshire).
The ‘Leeds cross’ is actually a composite, a Victorian presentation of the Leeds 1 fragments together with fragments of a cross-head that might be from another monument (Leeds 6).
It is important to remember that some of the missing pieces have been restored and are not original ones, so the precise details of many scenes are open to multiple interpretations that could have a significant affect upon how we interpret the iconography and overall appearance of the cross when first raised.
Narrow Faces B and D
Side B has an upper panel comprised of a simple plant-scroll above and a short run of interlace terminating at a Stafford Knot at each end below. Separated bya a plain flat border is a lower panel in which there is a twist pattern.
Side D is in contrast to Side B in having a seemingly continuous plant-scroll with two scrolls at the very bottom, although the plant-scroll does change form and these might be fragments of two separated panels.
Wide Face A
From top to bottom this compromises of the following panels from top to bottom:
- Two ring-knots joined by glides.
- The surviving half of a frontal cloaked human figure with outward curled hair.
- Interlace pattern
- Cloaked figure holding sword and with bird of prey to the right of ‘his’ shoulder
Wide Face C
It is on this face that we have from top to bottom:
- Frontal figure with dished nimbus and long hair and robe
- Frontal figure with possible trace of nimbus, one hand holding a book
- A female figure in profile held aloft by a figure ‘entangled in interlace which ties him to wings…’ and a ‘selection of smith’s tools bottom right’.
The cloaked figure at the bottom of Face A has been intepreted as Sigurd, Weland or frankly it could be any aristocratic figure represented with a bird of prey as a symbol of status and identity. Instead, it is the final scene described above, at the base of Face C which is nearly universally accepted as depicting Weland the Smith in his flying machine abducting Beaduhilde, the daughter of King Nidlad, whom he has ‘seduced’ and who bears him a son as ultimate revenge on the king for his imprisonment. The ‘flying machine’ scene was regarded by Lang has having been inspired by Scandinavian representations and material culture, surviving on the Gotlandic picture stone from Ardre.
I won’t present my full reinterpretation of this scene here, and its context, but I would like to illustrate the various dimensions to this scene below in all its detail, bearing in mind that it is only the lower left-hand side is not original and also note that the centre of the scene and the body and head of ‘Weland’ do not survive.
What my forthcoming research will attempt to do is explore the depiction in more detail, questioning previous interpretations of this scene and the relationship identified between the figures and the Weland story as presented. I will particularly be questioning the attribution to Weland of the principal status of ‘magical smith’ in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. In doing so, this will hopefully shed new light on this monument, and the wider significance of the Weland story in early England.