I recently had the opportunity to visit Stonehenge from the inside, on an English Heritage members’ tour that included a walk around a few of the many other sites in the area (Woodhenge, Durrington Walls, King’s Barrow and some Bronze-age round barrows as well). One of the reasons I love writing into British history is the sense of that layering of the past. Even here in New England where we had Native Americans moving through and some of the first settlers from Europe, there is little real depth to the history of human interaction with the landscape.
Nowadays, we view henges and other pre-historic sites with fascination, sometimes awe, curiosity at the very least. But, continuing in that vein of human interactions, this was not always the case. I give you the Barber Surgeon.
As you might imagine, my heart leapt at the name of the Barber Surgeon stone at Avebury, a stone circle not far from the iconic Stonehenge, and I only became more intrigued when I learned where the name came from. During the Victorian period and early twentieth century, much “archaeological” work was done (I use quotes because the early participants in this pursuit rarely attempted anything like academic or scientific rigor, resulting in many finds without provenance, certainly without detailed maps of the location of artifacts or any sense of their context—they had vastly different ends in mind, not always associated with the open-minded understanding of the cultures and histories they explore.) This enthusiasm included efforts to reconstruct some of the monuments brought low by time, including the Avebury stones, many of which had fallen.
However, when this particular stone was raised in the 1930’s, the re-constructors were startled to find a medieval body squashed underneath. You see, far from the reverence in which we now hold neolithic monuments, the folk of the Middle Ages had quite a different view. To them, these things were unholy evidence of a pagan past, possibly demonic in origin, certainly not a thing to appreciate or celebrate. Hence the hobby of coming out in groups to pull down the stones.
The fellow beneath the Barber Surgeon stone was, therefore, a victim of his own prejudice, apparently crushed in the act of tearing down a stone which had stood for thousands of years after its erection by those ancient peoples. The remains have been identified as a barber surgeon of the 14th century, based upon the belongings recovered with him: silver coins of Edward I or II, a pair of scissors, and a slender metal probe, likely of medical use.
His interaction with the landscape resulted in even greater evidence of human behavior, another intriguing mark upon the timeline of the place.