I’ve just read an invaluable reflection by archaeologist Dr Jonathan Last on the recent Telegraph story reporting that neo-Nazi groups have been holding religious ceremonies at Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy.
The evidence came from a now-deleted video posted on YouTube of night time fire rituals and a swastika has reportedly been carved into one of the beech trees surrounding Wayland’s Smithy. The text is here.
Here’s the BBC News take on this story.
And here, The Mirror.
Dr Last points to the way British prehistory has been portrayed in the media as part of the problem. But he identifies a wider problem that, for all the sophisticated interpretations by academics, the public are fed a ‘conservative, nostalgic narrative of a lost rural England.’ This, Dr Last argues, chimes with the ‘blood and soil’ ideology of extremists. The 20th-century recreations of prehistoric monuments at Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy afford a sense of timelessness that takes these monuments out of history: they are instead mysterious and never-changing. He advocates a shift in the way heritage organisations should be explaining monuments and their landscapes. Also, he advocates that we should emphasise that prehistoric remains ‘belong to everyone and are found everywhere, not just in ‘idyllic’ places of rural England. He concludes: ‘Vile nationalism has infected too many areas of public life in Britain in the last few years; let’s not allow our shared prehistoric heritage to go the same way.’
I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. And yet my immediate response was to add a further point:
Archaeologists cannot spend a century treating these sites as prehistoric and be surprised that ignoring their biographies of use and reuse creates a yawning space for extremist fantasies. It’s not the press, but ‘prehistorians’ and ‘prehistory’ that create this problem
Now this is perhaps unfair for Avebury, but even here, there exists only one book ever published attempting to coherently and systematically place the henge monument in long-term context by charting the archaeology of Avebury and its environs from prehistory to more recent times: by Josh Pollard and Andrew Reynolds. Avebury’s National Trust have worked long and hard to accommodate and retain good relations with neo-Pagan communities, however, and so it seems unfair to castigate this site’s management because of this unfortunate incident(s). However, I do wonder whether a more detailed and informed engagement with the medieval archaeology of Avebury might have served, and going forward might serve, to counter those extremists who take their inspiration from Germanic heathenry and apply them to megalithic monuments. It is important however, to state that most neo-Pagans have no association or interest in these presumably ‘Heathen’ groups and their race-hate, and we must also counter any simple or exclusive connection between white supremacism and Heathenry in any case. Many followers who attach spiritual associations to Avebury will be furious at this news story and worried over whether it will affect their respectful access to the monument. The same applies to Wayland’s Smithy. Yet when it comes to Wayland’s Smithy, a site I’ve been researching, I find we have sleep-walked into this problem.
For background, see my previous posts about this monument:
So why was Wayland’s Smithy and not (say) Belas Knap or West Kennet long barrow, the focus of neo-Nazi activity? I can make an informed guess. Like other prehistoric monuments, they have long been used as focal points for neo-Pagan rituals and votive offerings, none of which are necessarily or likely to have an association with far-right politics in any fashion. Indeed, every time I’ve visited Wayland’s Smithy over the last 40 years I’ve seen evidence of neo-Pagan activities, particularly votive offerings within the chambers. But that in itself is not reason enough and let’s not condemn neo-Pagans wholesale as somehow responsible for this issue.
Specifically, I suspect the attraction for neo-Nazis is because Wayland’s Smithy is alone in Wessex as a surviving prehistoric megalithic monument with such overt association with a supposed ‘pagan’ Germanic supernatural figure and thus simultaneously it might be misconceived by extremists as:
- rooting Germanic paganism in the English landscape in a discrete monumental form;
- narrating the Germanic supplanting of earlier populations who inhabited this landscape;
- Wayland’s Smithy is on Ashdown where Alfred beat the Danes in AD 871.
Put these points together and this landscape is readily perceived by neo-Nazis inspired by simplistic readings of Germanic paganism and Anglo-Saxon history as some form of sacred English heartland, linking the downs to the monument. In their crazed view, what better place to meet to worship and fantasise about a present-day patriotic Alfredan-style valiant and beleaguered defence of England against invading foreigners? One doesn’t have to look far to see the broader appeal of this romantic landscape with its White Horse, often associated with Alfred’s victory, Wayland’s Smithy, and the Vale of the White Horse, and its particular megalithic qualities. Although relating to a different, later, battle, one only has to look to the popularity of the TV series The Last Kingdom and its choice to portray Ecgbert’s Stone – where Alfred’s forces gather before engaging the Danes at Edington – as a megalithic monument to see the power of prehistoric features in the early medieval landscape in the storytelling and fantasies we continue to perpetuate regarding the birth of England.
The specific association of these stories with Wayland’s Smithy should be no revelation. Indeed, the seeds of this narrative were sown in antiquarian and early archaeological writings of the mid-19th century. In previous publications I’ve demonstrably shown how early Victorian archaeologists looked to Wayland’s Smithy and its landscape to illustrate the re-dedication of the entire countryside by swarms of incoming Teutons who replaced the ‘Celts’ – at that time still believed to exist as a ‘race’ and to have been the makers of megalithic monuments. In this view, the Germanic deity/hero Weland is evidence of the Anglo-Saxon religious and racial supremacy over, and supplanting of, the Britons/’Celts’. See my papers here and here.
What is shocking is that we haven’t moved beyond this view in how we communicate Wayland’s Smithy to visitors. Still to this day, the heritage interpretation of Wayland’s Smithy gives the stark impression: ‘named after the Saxon smith-god’! The sign as one approaches the site from the Ridgeway does nothing to counter the perception that this was a Germanic pagan theophoric place-name, even though the association with Weland comes in the Christian Anglo-Saxon period: a 10th-century charter (S564: ære gedrifonan fyrh, andlang fyrh oˇ hit cym∂ on ˇæt wide geat be eastan Welandes smi∂∂an: The Electronic Sawyer) for the estate of Compton. Meanwhile, the heritage board on site itself says nothing about the place-name and folklore traditions: this is regarded as a Neolithic archaeological monument, letting the later uses and perceptions of the site float free with no interpretive guidance offered to the visitor.
Reading this information on-site or online, one would be forgiven for thinking academics still regard this as some kind of pagan Saxon cult site, or an ancient monument superstitiously attributed to a Germanic god or hero because of a complete biological and cultural dislocation at the end of Roman Britain: there were no Britons around to tell them otherwise and the ‘Saxons’ now ruled the roost.
Tell me I’m wrong: but before you do so check out the English Heritage website for Wayland’s Smithy here. While you’re at it, check out the Wikipedia entry. The List entry gives a fair summary of the significance weighted towards its Neolithic phases.
Basically, we should have collectively seen this coming as archaeologists. Continuing to regard the Wayland appellation to Wayland’s Smithy as evidence of a pre-Christian Germanic cult site or pagan awe afforded to ancient monuments is perhaps one of the most spurious, lazy and plain problematic inferences that modern archaeologists and heritage professionals has inherited and still spews out for visitors to read. While I’m not saying archaeologists have been encouraging or facilitating neo-Nazi delusions directly, Wayland’s Smithy’s use as a focal point by such individuals might justifiably be regarded as a disaster waiting to happen, fostered by the treatment of the site as a prehistoric monument, and paying no critical attention to its later archaeological history or folklore.
Now, there are strong grounds for doubting the theophoric place-name interpretation, based on our knowledge that many supposed ‘pagan’ place-names are actually Christian-period in date and dedicated with other motives and associations, but also based on our knowledge of the early medieval landscape around this site: this was an early medieval thoroughfare in the middle and late Anglo-Saxon period, not some sleepy backwater where ‘pagan’ stories might have lingered on unnoticed by church and state! I cannot outline all the arguments here, however, but an alternative reading of the place-name and the post-Neolithic archaeology of Wayland’s Smithy will be dealt with in a forthcoming publication. I will say, however, that we have no independent evidence Weland was regarded as a ‘god’ in pre-Christian England. There are no sites where early Anglo-Saxon funerary and ritual activity take places that are connected with Weland place-names. When we encounter him, it is in overtly Christian contexts and he is an anti-hero whose tale speaks to Christian lordship, gift-giving and retributive violence. To whet your appetite about the specific links to a megalithic structure, see my 2015 book chapter where I present an argument that the megalithic chambered tomb in the later Anglo-Saxon peom Beowulf was not perceived as a ‘tomb’ at all, and seeing a prehistoric monument described as the dragon’s lair is an uncritical reading of the poem and displays an ignorance of later Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical and secular elite landscapes in which the poem would have been performed. Instead, the dragon’s lair was portrayed as a treasury of a doomed race: the results of an anti-funeral; laid without ceremony by a lone survivor who left it behind. Scholars have imagined a megalithic tomb in Beowulf and likewise they’ve lazily allowed the persistence of a connection between ancient races of giants and chambered tombs elsewhere. I think the likelihood that early medieval people saw Wayland’s Smithy as a tomb of a pagan deity or hero incredibly unlikely. Weland’s smithy was… his smithy – his place of incarceration and where he made treasures but also enacted his revenge on a despotic ruler. If there is any connection at all between the story of Volundr known from Icelandic writings in the 13th century and earlier incarnations, it is possible that later Anglo-Saxon Christians might equally be considered this ruinous megalithic chambered tomb, less a ‘tomb’ or a place of cult, but a monument linked to a smithy in a story of rape and murder as retributive violence and where the bones of the king’s sons were turned into treasures. Here, there is a connection to the dragon’s barrow in Beowulf: it was a treasury, not a tomb at all. Wayland’s Smity is implausible as a place of pagan veneration or superstitious awe; but part of a complex mnemonic landscape of later Anglo-Saxon Wessex, with political and religious dimensions to it, it just about makes sense alongside other ‘supernatural’ place-names in a well-organised and fully Christianised landscape.
Regardless of how we interpret the ‘Wayland’ attribution, and even if some evidence is forthcoming that this was a theophoric place-name with roots in the 5th-7th centuries AD, there are stronger grounds for criticising the myopic focus of heritage interpretation of Wayland’s Smithy on its Neolithic construction which erases any discussion of the later landscape and monument’s use and reuse. Absence of information only fuels the problem. Treating the place-name as a later ‘fancy’ or ‘wrong attribution’ by ‘incomers’ isn’t sufficient.
Put these together, and we have a clusterfxxk of poor heritage interpretation that is ripe appropriated by extremists. How did this happen? Partly it’s down to our persistent obsession with the ‘origins’ of monuments: how monuments came to be in the first instance, in the case of Wayland’s Smithy, in the early Neolithic. Another aspect is the chronological bracketing of monuments into time-periods: even Dr Last regards this as a ‘prehistoric’ monument, which is not his fault but how we categorise these monuments and I likewise slip into the same descriptors all the time. This ignores evidence of Iron Age and Roman activity on and around the site, as well as its early medieval place-name attribution as incidental or secondary. Lastly, there simply hasn’t been a modern study of Wayland’s Smithy’s archaeology and place-name dedication even if there are loads of available resources.
How do we remedy this? Partly, prehistorians need to stop seeing the afterlives of monuments as an afterthought. Also, it falls to me and fellow early medievalists who’ve been writing about prehistoric monuments deployed in various fashions in the Early Middle Ages to work harder to engage people with our work. I confess I still haven’t finished writing an article on Wayland’s Smithy. Someone in England’s heritage organisations might want to take note of my work now or when it’s published. But that’s no excuse for them: the academic research on the complex life-histories of monuments has been around for decades, and yet still, as Last states, we dish up the same dire gruel for the public to consume. Professor Sarah Semple’s book Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England addressing the rich data from historical, place-name and archaeological evidence for how prehistoric monuments were reused and perceived in Anglo-Saxon England is now well-established, and her publications on this have spanned three decades now. Professor Cornelius Holtorf’s work on the afterlives of megaliths have also been around for decades.
In conclusion, I can identify today a series of critical recommendations for the heritage interpretation of Wayland’s Smithy and its environs both on-site and digitally that recognise its early medieval significance in fashions that counter extremist fantasies about this monument and its setting. This isn’t a panacea to stop open and publicly accessible prehistoric monuments far from habitations being the focus of all manner of rituals and gatherings for a variety of purposes, including these neo-Nazis. What it can do is give the public visiting the site in the Oxfordshire landscape today, or looking it up online, a clear sense of what Wayland’s Smithy may have meant to Neolithic people, Bronze Age communities, Iron Age and Roman populations, and to those living around it through the Middle Ages into the modern era. We cannot future-proof our sites and monuments from appropriation by extremists, but in Wayland Smithy’s case, while archaeologists didn’t cause this situation, they have been sleepwalking into this situation.