Wayland's Smithy, on the north scarp of the downs above the Vale of the White Horse, is a two-phase Neolithic tomb. It has been a recognized feature of the historic landscape since at least the 10th century AD. It was recorded by Aubrey and later antiquaries, and continued to be of interest in the 19th century. It was amongst the first monuments to be protected by scheduling from 1882. The first excavations in 1919–20 were haphazardly organized and poorly recorded, but served to confirm, as suggested by Akerman and Thurnam, that the stone terminal chamber was transepted, to show that it had held burials, and to indicate the likely existence of an earlier structural phase.
Further excavations took place in 1962–63 to explore the monument more and restore it for better presentation. The excavations revealed a two-phase monument. Wayland's Smithy I is a small oval barrow, defined by flanking ditches, an oval kerb, and a low chalk and sarsen barrow. It contains a mortuary structure defined by large pits which held posts of split trunks, a pavement, and opposed linear cairns of sarsen. This has been seen as the remains of a pitched and ridged mortuary tent, in the manner proposed also for the structure under the Fussell's Lodge long barrow, but in the light of ensuing debate and of subsequent discoveries elsewhere, it can also be seen as an embanked, box-like structure, perhaps with a flat wooden roof. This structure contained the remains of at least fourteen human skeletons, in varying states of completeness. The burial rite may have included primary burial or exposure elsewhere, but some at least of the bodies could have been deposited directly into the mortuary structure, and subsequent circulation or removal of bones cannot be discounted. Little silt accumulated in the ditches of phase I before the construction of phase II, and a charcoal sample from this interval gave a date of 3700–3390 BC.
Wayland's Smithy II consists of a low sarsen-kerbed trapezoidal barrow, with flanking ditches, which follows the north–south alignment of phase I. At the south end there was a façade of larger sarsen stones, from which ran back a short passage leading to a transepted chamber, roofed with substantial capstones. This could have risen above the surrounding barrow. The excavations of 1919–20 revealed the presence of incomplete human burials in the west transept; the chamber had probably already been disturbed. The excavations of 1962–63 revealed further structural detail of the surrounds of the chamber, including a sarsen cairn piled in front and around it; deposits of calcium carbonate well up the walls of the chamber could be taken to suggest the former existence of chalk rubble blocking, in the manner of the West Kennet long barrow.
The monuments were built over a thin chalk soil which had been a little disturbed. The molluscan evidence shows open surroundings. Molluscan samples from the ditch of Wayland's Smithy II show subsequent regeneration of woodland.
Later activity on the site took the form of field ditches and lynchets, part of locally extensive field systems in the Iron Age and Romano-British period. Molluscan samples show again open country. There is evidence for disturbance of the tomb in late prehistoric and Roman times, and the denudation of the barrow had probably largely been effected by the end of the Roman era.
Wayland's Smithy provides important evidence for the sequence and development of Neolithic mortuary structures and burials. It is possible to suggest a gradual development for the structures ofWayland's Smithy I, in which opposed pits and substantial posts were incorporated into a box-like, linear mortuary structure, which in turn was incorporated into a small barrow. The subsequent construction of Wayland's Smithy II has become a classic example of the succession from small to large, and fits the late date of tombs with transepted chambers suggested by recent study of other sites. The nature of the circumstances surrounding this transformation remains unclear. The burials of phase I suggest the necessity of revising current notions about the ubiquity of secondary disposal in mortuary structures and tombs. In situ transformations suggest a very active concern with the dead, and offset the non-monumental character of the primary mortuary structure. In the relative absence of other detailed local evidence it is hard to relate the site to its local context, though comparisons can be drawn with the sequences of the neighbouring upper Thames valley and the upper Kennet valley and surrounding downland.