The story of the Barber surgeon of Avebury is one that most visitors to the prehistoric site of Avebury Henge in the English county of Wiltshire will have heard.
The traditional story goes as follows:
A pious traveller was assisting the folk of Avebury in burying the pagan standing stones in the village during the fourteenth century. Alas as he was busily digging out the underside of a stone it fell over, crushing him and entombing him beneath it. The archaeologist Alexander Keiller lifted the stone to reinstate it in 1938 and found the man’s remains underneath. Items found with the body including coins, scissors and an iron medical probe identified him as an itinerant mediaeval barber surgeon who had sadly been hoisted by his own petard.
Keiller sent the remains to the curator of the museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, whom he felt would appreciate the find. It was thought to have been destroyed during bombing in the Second World War but was rediscovered and re-examined in 1998. A large healed cut wound was noticed on the skull but no evidence of traumatic death was identified and it was suggested that the man had been buried beneath a stone rather than crushed by it.
The following was reported by BBC News in October 1999:
One of Britain’s best known archaeological finds, thought destroyed in the Second World War, has been rediscovered tucked away in a museum storeroom. The barber-surgeon skeleton dates from more than 500 years ago and was found during an excavation of the giant stone circle at Avebury, Wiltshire, in 1938.
The skull and upper torso of the tradesman, found with his medical probe, scissors and 13th century coins, provide a link to a crucial moment in the Neolithic monument’s history, as it faced destruction in the Middle Ages. He was killed by a falling stone, as the circle was being demolished.
The rediscovery was made in a storeroom in London’s Natural History Museum by Michael Pitts, the former curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury. He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “It is very exciting, it is a most extraordinary thing. I was actually looking for something different, a skeleton from Stonehenge. But when I found it, I discovered it was stored with 100 other skeletons, one of which was the barber-surgeon.”
The skeleton was sent for analysis to the Royal College of Surgeons, shortly after it was found. But the college sustained three direct hits during a wartime bombing raid in 1941 and archaeologists feared the skeleton had been destroyed. But research by Mr Pitts revealed that the college actually transferred some of its materials to a safe underground store in the Natural History Museum, and he was able to locate it, still undamaged.
He added: “During the 1938 excavations it was discovered that some of the stones had been buried in the Middle Ages, and some of the stones broken up.” Archaeologists believe this may have been to clear land for farming, but a more favoured theory is that the stones were broken up because the church disapproved of their Pagan associations.