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The Avebury Barber-Surgeon

I was introduced to archaeology over fifty years ago at night classes by Duncan Grant King whose main claim to archaeological fame was that he assisted the fast-living marmalade magnate, Alexander Keiller, in excavating the great prehistoric stone circle at Avebury, Wiltshire.

Avebury, now, a UNESCO world heritage site awash with visitors, I make my annual pilgrimage to see the barber-surgeon found by Keiller crushed beneath a sarsen. This poor fellow makes up one case’s worth in the site museum.

The belongings of the barber-surgeon

Found in 1938, it is his belongings that have always fascinated me: scissors and a purse of silver coins dating his death to the 1320s. These belongings show he was a man of means making his plight all the more intriguing. His misfortune was to be trapped while digging away at a huge sarsen, which, if you think about it, is rather remarkable, improbable and downright bizarre.

For long the assumption has been that this Christian victim, like others before and after him, were destroying these emblematic pagan monoliths. To such people has been ascribed a religious, even puritanical fervour.

Avebury circle

But much new research on prehistoric Stonehenge has altered our view of spirit of the sarsens from being the architecture of shrines to pillars associated with healing. Stonehenge’s sarsen stones, so one new thesis goes, were talismanic. Could this prehistoric belief in the healing powers of monolith chips and fragments have lasted into the later Middle Ages, even in the shadow of Avebury’s majestic parish church? Is it possible that the barber-surgeon was not destroying the stones, so much as pilfering pieces to garner more pennies from those who believed these ancient stones to be amulets? History as often as not, when the material evidence is scrutinized, is not what one has been long taught to believe.

Averbury Church

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