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Avebury henge


The 'barber-surgeon'

In 1938 Alexander Keiller was excavating in the south-west of the henge and re-erecting the buried stones which had once been part of the Neolithic stone circle. His workmen discovered the skeleton of a man all-but trapped under one of these megaliths. With him were some early fourteenth century coins, a pair of scissors and a 'medical-looking probe'. These are now in the Stables Museum at Avebury.

At this time scissors were rare and expensive. Most people used shears, with a curved metal 'hinge' between the blades. Keiller, whose antecedents included surgeons, dubbed the man a 'barber-surgeon' and the name has stuck.

The 'barber-surgeon' stone after re-erection. The man's skeleton was discovered near the 'bulge' on the left-hand side.

In reality his was at least as likely to have been a tailor. This was a peripatetic trade as few villages could provide enough work to keep a tailor gainfully employed for more than a few weeks. But, no doubt, he would have come round touting his skills at least once a year. Presumably such men made friends with the men and women on their 'round' and would have been respected and made welcome.

So why was this man buried next to the stone and not in the churchyard? The dramatic interpretation is that he was accidentally crushed as the stone was being toppled. But his skeleton, thought to have been lost to Second World War bombing, was re-discovered in 1998. Although he had suffered a cut to his scalp, this had healed. His bones show no signs of crushing injuries.

Instead of being crushed to death, he seems to have been 'informally' buried in the soil which would have been disturbed by the stone's burial. If so, we must assume that he died soon after the stone was toppled – revealing that such activities were taking place at least as early as the fourteenth century.

It is unlikely he was a murder victim as the coins and scissors would then have been stolen. One possibility was that he was not eligible for burial in a churchyard. Only those who had been baptised could be so buried and, even then, Christian burial could be denied to anyone the priest did not like. Did this man simply have too much of a bad reputation? Or was he not Christian at all? At this time tailors might have been Jewish.

We might imagine a scenario where the man died while visiting Avebury. If he was Jewish the rector might well have been unbendable about denying him burial in the churchyard, deeming him fit only to buried on the boundary of the parish, along with suicides and people hanged for capital crimes. If he had friends in the village they might deem this too severe a 'punishment' and contrive to secretively bury him somewhere less inauspicious. The disturbed soil next to a recently toppled megalith would make such a surreptitious burial much quicker and easier.

Alternatively, given the time of his death, he might have been suffering from the plague. A quick burial away from where people normally went would have been deemed appropriate. No one would have dared search his clothing for valuable items in case they too were infected.

Was he a surgeon or a tailor? Was he a Jew or an 'excommunicated' Christian? Did he die of the plague or 'merely' something more mundane, like a heart attack or infection? Or was they some real 'skullduggery' being his body being buried in such an unusual manner? The options are not quite endless, but certainly provide scope for any number of speculations and interpretations!



Someone who avoided such an ignomous non-Christian burial was nicknamed Ciappelletto. In the first tale of Boccaccio's Decameron he is described as having been born in Prato, near Florence. Strictly he is a fictional character but, because the Decameron was published in the early 1350s not long after the death of Avebury's 'barber-surgeon', his tale is the nearest we have to an account of the sort of person who looked set on a being denied the opportunity to rest in peace in a churchyard.

The best that can be said of Ciappelletto is that he was a trouble-maker, blasphemer, drunkard, gambler, perjurer, robber and murderer. He was also homosexual. While on business in Burgundy he stayed at the house of two Florentine money-lenders. But much to their dismay he took ill. So seriously they considered calling for the priest to take his last confession. 'But, he is so wicked he is unlikely to make a full confession', says one. 'But, in that case,' says the other, 'if he dies unconfessed he will not be given a Christian burial.' 'Even if he did confess,' retorted the first, 'his sins are so great that no priest would absolve him.'

'Either way he will be denied Christian burial and his body will be thrown in the ditch,' surmises the second. 'That would be an excuse for the local people – who, as you know only too well, hate us – to riot and plunder our property. Oh what shall we do?'

At this point Ciappelletto, who is well aware he is dying, speaks out. 'I will not allow such a dire situation to arise, my friends. Send for the priest forthwith.'

A friar duly arrives. He has never met Ciappelletto before, and has no idea who he is, still less his reputation. Ciappelletto duly admits that he has not been to confession that week because of his illness, and admits that after his weekly fast he sometimes drank water with great appetite. He also admits that he has given way to the sin of anger when he sees how young men no longer go to church but frequent the taverns. Increasingly impressed by his apparent piety, the friar asks Ciappelletto about his, erm, you know... 'Oh, yes, I have always been a virgin', is the reply.

The venerable friar is impressed by what seems to be a saintly life and asks if, out of respect for the Order, he would allow his body to be buried in the Order's own graveyard. This is duly agreed and the friar confers the viaticum and extreme unction. The money-lenders, having eavesdropped on this deathbed conversation, are stunned by the outrageous mendacity. Ciappelletto reassures them, 'Dear friends, I have affronted God so often and so deeply that one last outrage will not bother Him.'

Ciappelletto duly dies and his body is conveyed in solemn procession to the friar's church. The dead man's devotion, virtues and virginity are highlighted in the sermon. The crowd kiss his body, take his clothes as relics, light candles at his tomb, say prayers for his soul and place wax ex voto offerings nearby in the hope of intercession for their ailments. He is now 'St Ciappelletto'.

Boccaccio clearly intended this tale to mock the gullibility of the friar and the ordinary people. How relevant any of this might be to the demise of the man who was informally buried at Avebury a few decades before this tale was published I will leave as a wide-open question. But it does offer some insight into the world in which he lived.

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

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Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury sunrises and sunsets

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

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St Afa

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Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery