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.
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.
No 12 of my 15 Books of Summer