It’s long been thought that rituals involving the sacrifice of a coin (wishing wells, coins on the eyes of the dead, etc) date back to ancient practices of sacrificing precious metals to appease or garner favor with the gods.
One of the more interesting variants on this basic rite can be found at Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow from the Neolithic era. It’s located near the famous White Horse of Uffington, a figure that dates to the late Iron Age or early Bronze Age. The barrow itself likely dates back to a time shortly after agriculture was introduced to Britain from the main European continent. It is one of the better-preserved barrows of a type known as the Severn-Cotswald group.
The mound originally measured 185 feet long by 43 feet wide, though it currently looks somewhat different due to excavations. The burial remains of at least twenty-two individuals have been found in and around the barrow so far.
The name of the barrow indicates it was associated with Wolund, a smithing god of the Germanic peoples (Volund in the Norse legends); however, research indicates the name was only given to the place when the Saxons settled there, about 4000 years after it was built. The name was first documented by Saxon King Eadred in 955AD.
Sometime between 955 and 1738 (when the ritual is mentioned by Francis Wise, a tradition arose around the barrow: if one had a horse that had thrown a shoe along the road, he need only tie it to the barrow and leave a coin. When he returned later, the coin would be gone and his horse would be perfectly shod. Coins have been left at the site in modern times since at least the 1960s; visitors began wedging coins into cracks in the stones. The coins are currently removed by wardens and donated to local charities.
Ceri Houlbrook, a folklorist, stated that the coins “contribute to the ritual narrative of a site.” By participating in these ancient traditions, we feel connected with the peoples that have passed that way for millennia; by leaving our coins, regardless of what we believe about the legends, we offer our respects for humanity’s long-ago past.