A FORENSIC expert and a local archaelogist believe they have uncovered the secrets of a gruesome murder carried out in Avebury more than 700 years ago.

For 60 years it was believed that a skeleton, found in a pit with one of the stones in the famous circle during restoration work by millionaire Alexander Keiller, had been crushed to death by the 15 tonnes megalith.

But now that theory has been debunked by Marlborough archaeologist Mike Pitts, who believes the man was murdered.

A pair of scissors and a sharp implement were found with the bones which led Keiller and his colleagues to believe the skeleton was that of a barber-surgeon. In medieval England barbers also carried out surgery, including blood-letting.

Coins found with the skeleton dated between 1320 and 1350, confirmed that it had been buried at the same time as the megalith.

Keiller surmised the man had died during work to bury the standing stone, possibly when the stone unexpectedly slipped into the pit which had been dug for it. Many of the stones were buried in this way because they were regarded as the focus for pagan worship.

Generations of tourists throughout the latter part of the 20th century went away believing in the accident theory.

But now new research by Mr Pitts, one of the leading Avebury experts, together with forensic archaeologist Anthea Boyleston, has brought them to a completely different conclusion.

Following a re-examination of the skeleton which is kept at the Natural History Museum in London, the pair believe the man did not not die as a result of the stone falling on him. They dismiss Keiller's theory.

Ms Boyleston, a leading forensic researcher, believes the crush injuries to the skeleton would have been far more severe if the huge megalith had fallen on him.

The skeleton went missing for many years and was presumed lost when the Royal College of Surgeons, where Keiller had sent the bones for examination, took a direct hit in the Second World War bombing of London.

In 1995 however, Mr Pitts discovered the skeleton had survived and was stored, together with 20,000 others, at the Natural History Museum, where it had mistakenly been labelled as a Stonehenge skeleton.

His most recent examination of the skeleton with Ms Boyleston has ruled out any likelihood that the man died from crushing injuries.

He said: "She confirmed there were very few fractures which had occurred at the time of death, most had occurred later."

Re-examining Keiller's notes from the original dig, and photographs, Mr Pitts discovered that the skeleton had been found at the side of the stone and not directly beneath it.

He said: "I think that when they pushed the stone over into the pit there was a gap at the right hand side and into that gap the body of this man was dropped.

"We are sure that he was already dead when he was put in the pit as opposed to being crushed when the stone fell.

"I think something funny was going on and that the man died in suspicious circumstances, and his body was disposed of in the ideal place, a gap left at the side of the stone. The most likely scenario is that he was murdered and the gap at the side of the stone gave his attackers the perfect place to conceal the body."

Mr Pitts said that from a re-appraisal of the scissors and the sharp implement found with the skeleton, it was more likely that they were tailor's scissors and that the instrument was a bodkin used for pricking holes in thick material or leather.

"The old story that he was a barber surgeon who had been helping bury the stone and fell into the pit simply does not stand up."

If it had been an accident, as supposed, the body was so close to the side of the stone that it would have been a simple job for the man's contemporaries to dig him out and bury him in the churchyard.

Mr Pitts said another Avebury researcher, Andrew Reynolds, had also come to the same conclusion recently.

He said: "He also came to the conclusion that the skeleton might have been that of a murder victim."

Mr Pitts said it was possible that the travelling tailor was robbed and murdered.

It was the practice in those days to sew coins into the lining of clothes for safety and that, said the archaeologist, would explain why coins were found with the body, when the clothes had disintegrated and disappeared over the centuries.

He said: "He could have been stabbed, strangled or had his throat cut. We may never know."

Mr Pitts' new theory will be expounded on Channel 4 television on April 19 at 8pm, in the documentary series Tales From The Grave.