Stone circles

As symbols of British summertime, the solstice and Stonehenge go together like strawberries and cream or mud and Glastonbury. With this in mind, we have been browsing through William Stukeley’s book Stonehenge a temple restor’d to the British druids… published in 1740.

The historian Rosemary Hill writes of Stukeley that ‘He was..the first person to realise that the thing [Stonehenge] was oriented in some way with the solstice… and once you do that, you are no longer in the business of just measuring things and digging things. You are now involved with something that has purpose, motive and meaning – so you have to try to work out what that might be’. 

Stukeley was from a Lincolnshire family, studied and practiced medicine and was eventually ordained and moved to a living in Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1730. His interests were many and varied. He became a fellow of the Royal Society and a friend of Isaac Newton. He joined the Masons and was a founder member of the Society of Antiquaries, and he took great pleasure in travelling up and down the country exploring antiquities, old buildings and ruins, including Stonehenge and Avebury, which at this time were being raided by locals to provide stone for building cottages, barns, pig sties etc.
Stukeley was well read and undoubtedly knew of the theories published by previous researchers on the origins of the stone circles, notably by Inigo Jones and John Aubrey. The most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury Plain, Restored by Inigo Jones Esquire was loosely based on Jones notes but actually published posthumously in 1655 by John Webb. He had concluded that Stonehenge, since it was a structure of ‘elegancy and proportion’, had been erected not by the native Britons but by the Romans. In the mid seventeenth century the antiquary John Aubrey surveyed both circles and eventually published Monumenta Britannica, or, A miscellanie of British antiquities, in 1693. He concluded that the circles were attributable to peoples native to the British Isles and that, based on references by classical authors, this could only have been the priests known as Druids.
Stukeley undertook his own extensive fieldwork at Stonehenge and Avebury during the summers between 1718 and 1724. He made new discoveries – for example the earthwork avenue and the astronomical alignment of the stones – and although some of his interpretations were imaginative but incorrect, he laid the foundation for much of the research by future scholars. His book was based on the many notes, sketches, drawings, and measurements that he made.
 Stukeley is described as ‘having drawn all his life’ and his illustrations for the book manage to combine scientific detail with considerable quirky charm. Many of the images are so large that they are folded into place within the book’s pages. He chooses to indicate scale in almost every landscape by including human figures – visiting tourists, bewigged gentlemen either on horseback or standing gesticulating at the stones with their walking sticks, ladies with fans, a reclining artist or a shepherd and his dog. 

Stukeley’s interest in the stone circles became a very personal obsession – alongside his other interests he was an enthusiastic garden designer and his ideas on religion and the early British druids are clearly reflected in his designs for his own gardens. In October 1728 Stukeley writes to his friend Samuel Gale: ‘If you enquire what I am now about: I am making a Temple of the Druids, as I call it, tis thus. There is a circle of tall filbord trees in the nature of a hodg [hedge], which is 70 feet in diameter, round it is a walk 15 foot broad circular too… When you enter the innermost circle or temple, you see in the centre an ancient appletree overgrown with sacred mistletoe…’


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