Burial in the Avebury landscape

Avebury is the largest prehistoric henge complex in Britain, consisting of a huge circular ditch and bank, containing an outer circle of megalithic standing stones, with two smaller circles within. There are avenues leading away from the site, connecting it to the wider landscape, which includes many other important sites including The Sanctuary, West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill. In terms of scale, this is Stonehenge’s big brother!

I’m not a prehistorian, and so I have only the most rudimentary understanding of this sacred landscape and what archaeologists believe it meant to the people who created it 4,500 years ago, there’s some good introductory information here. My real interest lies in how later use has been superimposed on Avebury – a site whose original ritual uses did not include burial. I was lucky enough to visit the area earlier this year when I was accompanying an undergraduate field trip, and the remarkable nature of this space and its history really struck me.

The ditch and bank, at Avebury encloses an area of 28.5 acres. and it is these which are the defining feature of a henge – rather than the stones (in fact Stonehenge has the ditch on the wrong side, making it something of an anomaly) Parts of the henge are very well preserved, and many of the stones were re-erected in the 1930s. From certain angles, it is easy to imagine yourself standing in the Neolithic landscape, until a car drives past….

Photo taken of Avebury from the bank

Photo taken of Avebury from the bank

However, much of the space inside the henge is now occupied by Avebury village! This aerial photo shows the encroachment of the mundane world onto this scared site.

Aerial view of Avebury  Source: English Heritage

Aerial view of Avebury
Source: English Heritage

It’s also now home to sites associated with Christianity. St James’s church is a beautiful building with a quaint churchyard, sited at the heart of Avebury village.

St James Church Avebury

St James Church Avebury

Yup, while the students were mostly in the pub having lunch and hiding from the rain, I was in the churchyard, admiring the memorials and the flintwork architecture. Divine! I think the dramatic sky in that picture was worth getting caught in heavy showers for!

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I just loved these wall plaques on the thatch topped boundary wall too.

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I continued out of the gate behind the church and discovered an entrance to Avebury Manor – now owned by the National Trust. I also found a nice little café in which to eat some hearty vegetable soup! In the café I also picked up a leaflet which explained a little of the history of the manor.

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Avebury Manor stands on the site of a small Benedictine priory, dating to 1114, usually with only 2 or 3 monks, but their large flocks of sheep which were grazed on the downs, must have provided considerable income. The priory was founded by monks from Saint Georges de Boscherville near Rouen. This made it an ‘alien priory’- remaining in control of the mother church in Normandy. The priory was dissolved in 1378, along with all other alien priories under Henry V and was first held by royal servants and then granted to Fortheringhay College by the crown who held it until the dissolution of the monasteries.

The manor was then granted to Sir William Sharington in 1548, an interesting character, who after some difficulties involving fraud and coin clipping at the Bristol mint later in the same year, was able to pay a large fine and regain his estates in 1549. Avebury was some distance from his other holdings in Wiltshire and some sources suggest it was his interest in ancient monuments which drew him to the area. The manor changed house many times during its secular history, who knows how many of the owners were intrigued by Avebury circle, certainly John Aubrey stayed there in the 17th century on his visit to the monument.

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The parish church and its tithes belonged to Cirencester Abbey which caused much conflict between the Priory and the Abbey over income and spiritual provision for the parish. Thus this prehistoric monument was the battleground between two differing branches of the church, and there were two places of Christian worship within its boundaries! Although officially the monk’s chapel in the manor house was ruled to only be used by the monks, the need from the new holders provide a chaplain after the 1378 dissolution suggests that it had a wider role in the village.

An awareness that the area had ties to an earlier pagan past must have remained. Many of the megaliths were buried during the medieval period and later, perhaps as an attempt to remove the pagan influence, but also for practical reasons such as clearance for agriculture. However one strange incident suggests the former may have been paramount in the 14th century, because of something which was buried beneath one of the larger stones…

Photo taken during the excavation showing the skeleton

Photo taken during the excavation showing the skeleton

This skeleton was found by archaeologist Alexander Keller in 1938, during his excavation and re-erection of the megaliths. The presence of a pair of scissors and an iron medical probe (along with 14th century coins) with the body, suggested the identification of the man as an itinerant Barber-surgeon. Keller believed that this traveller must have been a pious man and been accidently crushed by the stone as he assisted with its burial. However recent re-examination of the skeleton (which was had previously thought to have been destroyed by bombing in WWII) belies this theory because other than a healed cut on the skull there was no evidence of trauma to the skeleton. The ‘barber-surgeon’ was deliberately buried beneath the stone after his death from cause or causes unknown.

barber surgeon stone avebury

During the trip, the students were asked to consider reasons why he was buried here, when the churchyard was only a short distance away. Perhaps this traveller, an outsider to the community was seen as a threat of some kind? Certainly strangers were often treated differently from members of the parish in death – suffering the same fates as unbaptised infants, excommunicated criminals and suicides, who might be buried on the North side of the church (in its shadow) or in an unconsecrated potter’s field. Suicides and criminals might even be buried at a crossroads– reflecting earlier superstitions about the dead (a post for another day). Similar superstitions may have been held about this man – was he perceived as malevolent in some way? Perhaps due to suspicion about his profession? Lack of understanding about medicine could put healers at risk of appearing to do magic and accusations of witchcraft. If so, where better to bury him than beneath the stones, which were both on unconsecrated ground and also help to secure the community from his interference from beyond the grave. Or perhaps there was foul play involved, and he was quietly slipped into the bottom of a hole dug for the stones, to avoid discovery? We will never know, but it certainly raises interesting questions about the interplay between the past and the present, between the pagan and the Christian at a monument with a long and incredible history.

Bibliography

BBC News, 1999, Museum skeleton comes out of the cupboard, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/479190.stm, accessed on April 3rd 2015

Elmer, P, 2004, The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500-1800, Manchester University Press, previews available on google books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lFi2zHG5XWMC

English Heritage, no date, History of Avebury Henge and Stone Circles, available at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/avebury/history/, accessed on April 3rd 2015.

National Trust, no date, Avebury, available at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/avebury/, accessed on April 3rd 2015.

Pollard, J. & Gillings M., 2004, Avebury, Bloomsbury. preview available on google books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KeSBAAAAMAAJ

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