Inquisitive journeys

The Prospect of Glasenbury Abby

Stukeley Illustrated:
William Stukeley’s Rediscovery of Britain’s Ancient Sites
Compiled by Neil Mortimer.
Green Magic 2003

Doctor, antiquarian, archaeological fieldworker, interpretative artist, Fellow of the Royal Society and inspirer of modern druidry — William Stukeley (1687-1765) was all these things, almost a personification of the Age of Enlightenment. Neil Mortimer reminds us that his “multifarious interests” included antiquities, astronomy, architecture, natural history, botany, geography, music, history and theology, leading him to make extensive tours around Britain over some fifteen years, resulting in the publication of the first illustrated edition of his Itinerarium Curiosum, or ‘An Inquisitive Journey’.

The author here gives us rather more than a mere potted history of this long-lived scholar. Though in later years he was regarded as somewhat dotty, a fellow antiquarian was to pen this appreciation of him:

“There was in him such a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism, that he afforded me that kind of well-seasoned repast, which the French call an Ambigu, I suppose from a compound of things never meant to meet together.”

William Warburton

But Mortimer’s intention in this volume was not to offer us a detailed biography but instead to provide a selection of examples of Stukeley’s draughtsmanship, from general prospects to ground plans, from bird’s eye views to imaginative reconstructions, from meticulous illustrations recording small finds to bust portraits of friends, vandals … and himself. The more than a hundred engravings presented give a good overview of Stukeley’s accomplishments and represent a fine tribute to the man.

Stukeley as an antique Roman

After Itinerarium Curiosum (1724) Stukeley published the volumes for which he’s best known, focused on Stonehenge (1740) and on Avebury (1743). Mortimer republishes copious engravings of both these sites: in both he included contemporary scenic views of the ruins and reconstructed impressions with a druid for scale — the epitome of ‘Romantick’ visions of the prehistoric monuments — along with careful, measured surveys of the remains, and landscapes showing how barrows, stones, hillforts and other antiquities appeared in relation to each other. That he had a personal agenda is evident from the title pages of his volumes: Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids proclaimed one, and Abury, a Temple of the British Druids, with some others described was the title of the other. Such an identification (anachronistic as we now know) of these monuments with supposed druidic practices was to have lasting implications, but doubtless helped to slow their destruction because of their potential to draw tourists to visit.

A postscript in this modern illustrated work summarises Stukeley’s positive achievements and legacy for the modern archaeologist:

“The detailed records that he made about monuments and their relationship with the wider landscapes in which they stood were without precedent. The methodology of his rigorous fieldwork was quite unlike anything that had come before, and paved the way for the scientific study of archaeology which evolved from the 19th century to the present.”

Mortimer, page 124

But Mortimer also emphasises that Stukeley’s infatuation with druids and Ancient Britons fed into Romantic movements in literature, arts and indeed popular culture, influencing William Blake and many others, right down through the 20th century and into our own times.

Included in this excellent general introduction to Stukeley’s work and legacy is a bibliography of some of his publications, plus more recent titles for further reading, a preface listing the author’s acknowledgements, and an index of sites shown in the engravings included in this selection. For more serious scholars there’s also Stukeley’s ‘Stonehenge’: An Unpublished Manuscript, 1721-1724 which Aubrey Burl and Neil Mortimer went on to publish in 2005.

Stonehenge (detail)

No 12 of my 15 Books of Summer

11 thoughts on “Inquisitive journeys

    1. I don’t know about elsewhere in the world, Mallika, but in Britain there used to be a intellectual suspicion of people who are multi-talented: it was as if those who were good actors couldn’t be just as good writers, or someone who was a professional comedian or rock musician couldn’t also have a PhD in astrophysics.

      Certainly when I was a student in the 60s I noticed there was a general expectation that if one was qualified in one area that remained your job for life and didn’t fit you for anything else.

      Later in the century though, when the concept of a ‘job for life’ no longer held and transferable skills became the new buzz phrase, that intellectual snobbery (because that was what it was) lessened considerably; still, the notion of somebody being a polymath (which someone like Stukeley may have personified, a not uncommon idea which continued through to the 19th century) is one that a few still have problems with.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Partly, I think this is the case everywhere (discomfort with talents in multiple areas), though people are beginning to get used to the idea of career switches; one sees stress on specialisation more and more on the one hand (even within a discipline) but then also promotion of interdisciplinary approaches–the latter people with multiple interests who are allowed to build on them would automatically be able to do.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The dichotomy of having either too much or too little passion, vision and innovation when applying for jobs or promotion! And of course in some areas it’s not what you know but *who* you know that gets you climbing the ladder of success…

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Stukeley was one of the writers/antiquarians/topographers we studied on the archive Master’s back in the 90s as part of the historiography module. It was an interesting part of the degree.

    I enjoyed your discussion with Mallika about polymaths and the desire to box people off into a specialism. There was an amount of that at the school I went to in the 80s, and I see it happening in the Master’s courses today, with students forced to choose between records management and archive management, when we need both sets of skills to do either job, since each informs the other. I’m not a polymath, but my job draws on my skills in language, history, science, maths and engineering as much as it does the information science underpinning it. The collections I care for are testament to the inventors and innovators who moved the world from agrarian to industrial to cyber having broader knowledge and interests than just their area of specialism. The human brain is a wonder. Why do we try so hard to restrict what individuals do with it? I particularly loathe the championing of science over the arts. We need both, something that the men to whom statues have been erected understood better than the policy making buffoons who claim to admire them without understanding them.

    Sorry for the rant. The recent heat has disrupted my sleep and made me even feistier than usual!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No apology needed, Jan, I don’t think we even need the excuse of heat and lack of sleep to be appalled at the ‘policy-making buffoons’ who claim to know the price of everything (though even that may be questionable) but know the true value of nothing.

      Education, in the UK at the very least, has long been predicated on the notion of increasing specialisms at the expense of a broad knowledge and appreciation. The boundary was originally the primary/secondary transition, but in recent decades myopic learning has dangerously invaded key stages one and two.

      As a secondary music teacher who also variously taught history, English, IT skills and special needs French (for example) I ceaselessly proclaimed the interconnectedness of all areas of discipline with students and senior management, but it always felt like spitting into the wind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Being childless, and my contact with students through my job being A level and above, I hadn’t realised this curtailment of wonder now starts at the very beginning of a child’s education. One of the things I love best in my job is showing students the range of things that go into ‘science and industry’, from the sketchbooks of an electrical engineer who was also an artist to the maths involved in textile design and the engineering and chemistry used in the development of modern fabrics.

    Education policy might churn out people who are very good at one thing that it is supposed the economy needs, but we lose so much of what makes learning fun as a result, turning it into a stressful chore and fostering an elitism that leaves some people behind. Plus the removal of subjects that are deemed irrelevant to gaining employment, all in the area of the arts. I was never going to be a painter or a musician, but the things I learnt from both subjects at school continue to enrich my life today.

    It must have been very frustrating for you as a teacher.


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