The evocative image above is one of the many beautifully detailed drawings of Stonehenge made by William Stukeley, born on this day (7th November) in 1687. Stukeley was an antiquary, natural philosopher and arguably “Father of British Archaeology”, and this illustration appears in his seminal and iconic work “Stonehenge. A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids”, published in 1740. The University of Glasgow is fortunate in having a copy of this remarkable book, now held in Special Collections in the University Library.
William Stukeley (1687-1765), came from Holbeach in Lincolnshire where his father earned a comfortable living as a lawyer. In early childhood he already showed a particular interest in and aptitude for drawing and map-making, which he put to good use later in life, but immediately on leaving school he began working as a clerk in his father’s law firm. However, it soon became clear that he was much more interested in studying natural philosophy and antiquities, and he prevailed upon his father to allow him to attend Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studied medicine, and also developed his interests in botany, the natural sciences, and astronomy. Following graduation, he moved to London where he studied anatomy, and continued his medical education under the guidance of the physician Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754).
He then practised medicine for around seven years in Lincolnshire, before returning to London in 1717. The next ten years were an intellectually stimulating and exciting period for Stukeley, when he mixed with a circle of friends which as well as Richard Mead, included Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Edmond Halley (1656-1742), the theologian William Whiston (1667-1752) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who was an important influence on him, helping to shape the course of his future life and intellectual interests. Such was their friendship that Stukeley was to become Newton’s first biographer, writing his “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” in 1752, in which the now famous anecdote about Newton’s theory of gravity resulting from observation of an apple falling from a tree was told for the first time. (This unpublished manuscript is now held by the Royal Society of London as Stukeley MS 142).
In 1720 Stukeley became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, later publishing the text of his inaugural lecture as “Of the spleen…” which included his report on the dissection of an elephant, carried out with Hans Sloane. Although still practising as a doctor Stukeley’s interests were leaning increasingly towards the study of antiquities. In this, he was strongly motivated by the desire to show how this and other elements of the “new science” could provide evidence to support the biblical narrative and tenets of orthodox religion. He also wanted to be able to demonstrate that the British Isles had been the home of a high culture and had been “civilized” long before the advent of the Romans.
In 1730, encouraged by his friend William Wake (1657-1737), now Archbishop of Canterbury, Stukeley left the practice of medicine and was ordained in the Church of England. His new role provided him with the means and opportunity to pursue his interest in the history of religion and the field monuments of Britain’s remote past, in particular the stone circles. Following the lead of William Camden (1551-1623) in his book “Britannia” and the writings of the Tudor historian John Leland (1503-1552) and of John Aubrey (1626-1697), he believed that these were the temples of the Druids, the priests of the Iron Age Celts, whose religious practices had been described in lurid terms by Roman authors. The Romans were somewhat ambivalent about the Druids: on the one hand, they were shocked by their religion which apparently involved human sacrifice and other gruesome ceremonies. However, on the other hand, they seem to have been fascinated and impressed by the esoteric knowledge of the Druids, their skill in poetry, their understanding of astronomy and the healing arts, and by the authority, power and status they enjoyed within their community. It was believed that the training of a Druid took twenty years, and that their wisdom was passed on orally as it could not be committed to writing.
Like many of his learned contemporaries, Stukeley became somewhat obsessed by the idea of the Druids…
Archaeologists now believe that Stonehenge was constructed during the Neolithic era from around 3000 -2000 B.C, but in Stukeley’s day most people took it for granted that all ancient field monuments were the work of the Romans. Stukeley’s studies had convinced him that the British Druids had built Stonehenge, that they had followed a form of the original “Abrahamic” religion and had possessed knowledge and wisdom which had since become lost.
As a consequence between 1718 and 1724 he devoted much time and effort to studying the stone circles of both Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, carrying out extensive fieldwork at both sites and painstakingly recording his findings in detailed notes, sketches, drawings and measurements. He was an astute and thorough observer and since both sites were being routinely plundered for building materials, Stukeley’s research was particularly timely in recording important information about these monuments for posterity. His publication of Stonehenge: a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids in 1740 made a huge impact at the time and continued to be influential, establishing the association of Druids with Stonehenge forever in the public imagination.
Lavishly illustrated with engravings by Gerard Vandergucht (1696/7-1776) and “Toms”, (presumably William Henry Toms, c.1700-c.1758) of Stukeley’s original drawings, the book marked a turning point in the understanding not only of the site of Stonehenge and stone circles in particular, but of the early, pre-Roman history of the British Isles.
In observing the site, Stukeley had made a number of new discoveries, including the nearby ‘cursus’, or earthwork. He was also the first to recognize the astronomical alignment of the stones and to coin the word ‘trilithon’ (from Greek ‘tri’ – three, and ‘lithos’ – stone), to describe two large vertical stones topped by a horizontal stone lintel.
William Stukeley died on 3 March 1765 and was buried in East Ham Churchyard in Essex.
Although his enthusiasms and speculations may seem fanciful today and his ideas about the Druids and the origins of Stonehenge and the other ancient stone circles were very much in error, it would be wrong to ridicule Stukeley or dismiss him as a deluded and overly imaginative fantasist. He was a man of his times, and inevitably was constrained by the limitations and influenced by the trends in thought which were typical of his day. Despite these shortcomings, Stukeley made real and important contributions to the study of what was eventually to become the science of British archaeology. Before him, it was rare for people to deliberately excavate the ground in order to find what might be buried there and how it can help illuminate the past. His pioneering work and inspiration paved the way for later discoveries and advances in our knowledge and understanding of prehistory. In addition, his book is a beautiful work of art.
Other books by William Stukeley also available for consultation in Special Collections on Level 12 of the Library:
[An Account of a Roman Temple, and other antiquities, near Graham’S Dike in Scotland] Sp Coll Mu4-b.14
A Concise Account of the most remarkable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stonehenge… Sp Coll Mu56-h.20
Itinerarium Curiosum Sp Coll Bk3-d.15
Twenty-three plates of the coins of the ancient British Kings Sp Coll f377
The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley Sp Coll Mu29-b.14-16
Haycock, David Boyd: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online article on William Stukeley [page accessed on 6/10/2015]
Haycock, David Boyd: William Stukeley: science, religion and archaeology in eighteenth century England. Woodbridge, 2002 Archaeology D5 S8 HAY
Laing, Lloyd and Laing, Jennifer: The Origins of Britain. London, 1982 Archaeology D50 Laing
Laing, Lloyd: Celtic Britain. London, 1979 Archaeology D600 LAING 2