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Happy Birthday William Stukeley.

November 7, 2016


At a time when everybody’s talking about Trump and Farage and other destructive egomaniacs, perhaps everybody (and I mean everybody) should drop everything and wish a very happy birthday to antiquarian and maker of wonderful books, William Stukeley, born on this day in 1687.

Stukeley became an Anglican clergyman while retaining a fascination with druids.   Without being in any sense a new age Pagan, he was interested in ideas of monotheistic congruence that suggested continuities between pre-historic belief systems and Anglican orthodoxy.

Stukeley dug Stonehenge and Avebury, in both the literal and the colloquial sense.  His importance lies not so much in his theorisation of these sites, but in his careful measurements and calculations.   Indeed, Stukeley occupies a liminal category between the speculative antiquarian and the practical archaeologist.   His method was empirical, even if his deductions were unsubstantiated.   He employed the spade and the tape measure and the sketchbook and he was careful in his use of all three.  If he did not “discover” the purpose of these stone monoliths, he discovered how to discover them.

And his books were very lovely.   Palaeographia Britannica or discourses on Antiquities in Britain (1742) is, quite simply,  one of the most beautiful things created in the eighteenth-century.  It is a labour of love that denotes a love of labour.  Whatever else Stukeley had, he had a sense of the numinous.  Stukeley, without being anything resembling a religious bigot or a fanatic in either a Christian or pre-Christian sense, needed to believe that he was part of something larger than himself.  He wanted to see patterns in the universe and was too quick to find them.

Now Stukeley was wrong about Stonehenge.  Seriously wrong.   The monument was not erected in the 5th century BCE by druids and it has nothing to do with either the Magnetic North Pole or magnetism in general.   But the very beauty of his publications made their own point.   Stukeley’s wrongness provoked others, provoked generations of people who increasingly, generation by generation, came to resemble what we’d call archaeologists, to refute Stukeley.  He inspired him.  They shared his patience, and they shared his passion and rejected his conclusions.

Perhaps that’s the best that any scholar can ever hope for.


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