ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 48, October 1999


Lost skeleton of `barber-surgeon' found in museum

One of British archaeology's best-known and most `dramatic' skeletons, which was thought destroyed during World War II, has been rediscovered in a basement of the Natural History Museum.

It belongs to the Avebury `barber-surgeon', and was originally found underneath a buried megalith by Alexander Keiller in 1938. Dated by coins to the early 14th century, and identified as a barber-surgeon by a pair of scissors and a medical-looking probe, he is thought to have been crushed accidentally by the megalith as it was being buried in a medieval `rite of destruction'. The stone was re-erected by Keiller during the excavation.

Keiller donated the skeleton to the Royal College of Surgeons, which was bombed during the Blitz of 1941. Most people assumed that that was the end of the barber-surgeon. In fact, all the human remains in the college's collection which survived the bombing - including the barber-surgeon himself - were lodged after the war in the Natural History Museum. The transfer was documented by college archivists, but appears to have escaped archaeological notice.

The skeleton has now been relocated by Michael Pitts, former curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, while researching a book on henges. It lies, labelled, in a cardboard box, ironically in a bomb-proof basement at the museum. Other `lost' skeletons from Stonehenge, Woodhenge and the Avebury Sanctuary also survive in the museum. `The barber-surgeon's skeleton exactly matches Keiller's description,' Mr Pitts said. `There is no doubt of its identity.'

It has been re-examined by human remains specialist Jackie McKinley of the Wessex Archaeological Trust. Two intriguing new facts emerge. First, the barber-surgeon has a healed sword-cut to the side of his head, running from the top of his skull across the right-hand temple, which may have been sustained as a soldier during Edward I's campaigning in Wales or Scotland. The wound was recorded by Keiller but failed to be mentioned in the final report, written some decades after the excavation.

Second, and most surprisingly, the skeleton shows no sign of having been crushed at the time of death. The hip bones were broken, but in a way consistent with `natural' breakage from lying many years in the ground. The discovery suggests, according to Mr Pitts, that the barber-surgeon may have died before the burial of the megalith, and was himself interred underneath it by villagers unwilling for some reason to place him in a graveyard. Alternatively, he may have been accidentally pinned to the ground as the stone was laid gently in its pit, and subsequently died of suffocation.

A second avenue of megaliths - the `Beck-hampton' Avenue - has been discovered at Avebury, leading west out of the main stone circle. The well-known West Kennet Avenue leads south. The new avenue was recorded by the 18th century antiquary William Stukeley, but the stones were since buried or removed and his report has long been questioned. Six buried stones have now been located.

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Pictish monastery found in Easter Ross

Traces of one of the earliest monasteries known in Scotland were revealed this summer by excavations at Portmahomack in Easter Ross, on the northern shore of the Moray Firth.

The dig, directed by Martin Carver of the University of York, uncovered the foundations of a number of rectangular stone buildings, grave markers, the lid of a sarcophagus, and dozens of decorated fragments from at leastone largestone memorial with the figure of a dragon on one side and possibly the 12 apostles on the other. The memorial also carried an inscription in Latin, regarded as a clear sign that the site was a monastic foundation. Many of the sculpted pieces are in a superb state of preservation, and some appear to have been painted, with traces surviving of red and black.

The earliest dating evidence was an early 8th century coin, while particular types of pins and combs show that the monastery continued through the 9th-11th centuries. At some stage - as yet undated - the monastery burned down, evidenced by an extensive layer of burned wood and mortar. According to Prof Carver, this may represent a 9th century Viking raid, or a later attack linked to the Battle of Tarbat Ness, fought between the Earl of Orkney and the men of Moray in about 1045.

The 8th century coin came from Frisia (modern Holland), the most northerly yet found. It shows that Portmahomack had joined an east coast trading network, possibly as a result of aligning with Northum-brian Christianity. In 710, Nechtan, king of the Picts, had sent to Northumbria for information on the Roman church and how to build in the Roman manner - an inquiry that presumably led to the foundation at Portmahomack itself.

The excavation, which started in 1997, was prompted by the presence of a 12th century chapel on the site containing Pictish carved stones, one with a Latin inscription, and an aerial photograph taken in the 1980s which appeared to show a monastic enclosure.

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Roman gold mixed with native religion

The largest 1st century AD gold coin hoard in Britain, found recently by two metal detectorists in Bedford-shire, has shed new light on the continuation of Iron Age religious practices in early Roman Britain.

The hoard of 123 gold coins, which received some publicity when it was acquired by Luton Museum last month, is one of only a handful of large early Imperial Roman hoards known anywhere in Europe. The coins, or aureii, were issued by the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian, and represent a huge sum of money. Many are in mint condition. A smaller hoard of seven silver denarii, including Republican and early Imperial issues (the latest being one of Vespasian), was found nearby. Both hoards are thought to have been buried in the 80s AD.

According to Robin Holgate of Luton Museum, the hoards bear a striking resemblance to late Iron Age votive deposits of gold and silver items, such as those from Essenden in Hertfordshire, Snettisham in Norfolk and elsewhere. Metalwork hoards of this date are now typically interpreted as religious deposits - rather than as `burials for safekeeping' - and in this instance may indicate the site of an important Roman temple or cult site.

The findspot lies close to a spring and a prehistoric barrow, and scattered finds from surrounding fields include quantities of Roman pottery and tile, as well as the handle of a Roman knife, and a mortar for grinding cosmetics or incense. Rectilinear cropmarks in the field where the coins were found may suggest a temple precinct, although they remain undated.

The presence of the barrow is regarded as significant, following a number of recent discoveries of Roman (and later) religious or burial activity centring on prehistoric monuments (see BA, November 1997). Other sites where Iron Age votive practice appears to have continued in the Roman period include the cult site at Essenden, the Romano-Celtic temple at Harlow in Essex, and at Bath.

The hoards were declared treasure by a coroner's court earlier this year and valued at £200,000. They will go on display at Luton Museum early next year.

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In brief

New Director

The new Director of the Council for British Archaeology is George Lambrick, formerly Deputy Director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit. Mr Lambrick, aged 47, read modern history at Oxford University where he was President of the university's archaeological society. He joined the Oxford unit after graduating, and the numerous sites he has excavated include Blackfriars in Oxford, several gravel sites in the Thames Valley, and the Rollright stone circle. His main research interests have focused on the late prehistoric period.

He has a longstanding involvement with conservation issues, having advised the Government since the 1970s on the effect of arable farming on archaeological remains. From 1985 to 1990 he was Hon Sec of the CBA's Countryside Committee, and drafted responses to consultation documents on issues including the water industry, agriculture and forestry. He has taken part in a number of environmental assessment studies, notably for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and several major road schemes.

He recently conducted a strategic re-view of urban archaeology in Ireland for the Irish Heritage Council, which is about to be published. He has long experience of adult education through the Department of Continuing Education at Oxford, where he is a regular tutor and lecturer. He has also served on committees for organisations such as the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society, and the Oxfordshire branch of the CPRE.

On becoming Director, Mr Lambrick said that the CBA was `unrivalled' in its ability to provide independent, authoritative advice to individuals, communities and government. `By promoting education, re-search, conservation and communication, the CBA helps shape people's quality of life across the UK. It is a great privilege to be given the chance to build on the solid foundations laid by my predecessor.'

Anglo-Saxon history may now still be studied at A-level. Recently all three English exam boards decided to drop the subject (see BA, September), but last month the OCR board reversed its decision. Out of 11,000 candidates taking the OCR history A-level this year, 304 chose the syllabus covering the years 300-1500, but only three answered questions on Anglo-Saxon history.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999