The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about archaeological finds along The Ridgeway to help us create a community Top 50!

Legend may have imagined the famous sword Excalibur being made by the blacksmith God Wayland in his forge beside The Ridgeway, but swords also feature as real life archaeological finds along the Trail. One of the most special finds along the Trail is one of Britain’s most preserved swords from the Bronze Age and you can watch this video to see a replica being made to celebrate The Ridgeway’s 50th anniversary. The Bronze Age was the period in human history when swords were first developed.

Another amazing ‘find’ along the Trail in 2015 was the ‘Watlington Hoard’ of coins, jewellery and other precious items thought to have been buried by the Viking army around 879-880AD. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image: Silver Viking arm ring made as a modern replica of a Watlington Hoard item. Credit: Sarah Wright with kind permission from Ashmolean Museum

Swords seem to have been highly prized in the Bronze Age and this tells us something about the society of that time. Swords were probably developed in Hungary and they were the first objects to be specifically made as weapons to fight other humans, rather than being tools or for hunting animals. The Ivinghoe sword was made around 1000-1200BC and represents the pinnacle of bronze casting technology. It was found in the ground near Ivinghoe Beacon and, despite its age, it is still sharp and the scratches and hammer marks made by the sword maker can be seen. It measures 55cm in length and the blade curves outwards to a maximum width of 3.5cm. The handle has the deep shoulder design of Wilburton-type swords and it is thought this sword may have had a bone handle. To get a closer look, you can see the sword on display in the Archaeology section of the Discover Bucks Museum in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Moving forward in time to the Anglo-Saxon period, a sword was placed with a spear, shield and other items beside a man buried in a round barrow on Lowbury Hill just north of The Ridgeway. As a ‘patterned sword’, the metal blade would have had visible lines on its surface. In this period, early bladesmiths would forge together thin iron bars or plates in order to produce as hard and tough a blade as possible and twisting during the process of ‘pattern welding’ created a decorative effect. The full story behind the burial can be found here and all the artefacts can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon gallery at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

It was also during the Anglo-Saxon period around 879-880AD that a hoard of silver coins, ingots, jewellery and bullion was buried. Over a thousand years later, the items were found in a field near Watlington in 2015, by which time the coins had become brittle or broken and items were starting to be displaced by ploughing etc. The items are now safely on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Oxfordshire, having been transported as a clump of earth to a laboratory to be x-rayed and carefully picked apart! There are also replicas of a few items on display in the Watlington Library, a short walk from The Ridgeway.

The Watlington Hoard includes a range of items which tell a number of interesting stories. Arm rings (see image gallery above) were worn to display personal wealth and it is said that the giving of arm rings was a symbol of the bond between the leader and his followers. There was also ‘hacksilver’ in the form of brooches and an arm ring, a rare piece of ‘hackgold’ and ingots of silver. These items were carried because Vikings at that time valued silver by weight and purity, rather than by minting coin. Ingots were a convenient way to store and carry larger quantities of silver and people would cut (or ‘hack’ off) silver to the size and weight required.

It is possible to read ‘AELFREDREXANGLO’ on one of the Watlington Hoard coins and this can be interpreted as ‘Alfred King of the English’. This is particularly special for Ridgeway fans since Alfred the Great has numerous connections to The Ridgeway, as described here. There are also coin designs indicating that Alfred had a formal alliance with Ceolwulf II of Mercia. This evidence differs from descriptions in historical documents which downplay Ceolwulf’s influence. Ultimately, however, Mercia would combine with Wessex to form a single united kingdom of England only a few years after these coins were made.

Numerous other items dating as far back as the Palaeolithic, such as a flint hand axe found on Sparsholt Downs in Oxfordshire, through to the recent past have been found along The Ridgeway. In addition to the museums mentioned previously, several other museums along the Trail display interesting objects in their exhibitions. Glimpse far back to prehistoric times along The Ridgeway by visiting  Wiltshire Museum‘s ‘Prehistoric Wiltshire’ gallery in Devizes and Avebury museum in Wiltshire. Another award-winning museum, which is also the ideal place to learn more about King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, is the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage in Oxfordshire. Enjoy!

Notes: More information about King Alfred and Lowbury Hill is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

Return to Ridgeway Top 50 homepage.

Share your photos and stories to create a community Top 50! #Ridgeway50