Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Stukeley’s systematic method of investigating Stonehenge, Avebury, and related prehistoric stone temple sites produced exceptional notes and drawings and became a model for archaeological fieldwork.

Summary of Event

The Wiltshire prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge are significant both in their construction and in the way they are situated in the landscape. Stonehenge is the ruin Ruins;England of a single building. An earthen embankment surrounded by a circular excavation ditch defines the site, although additional megaliths and earthworks lie outside the circle. In contrast with the compact area of Stonehenge, Avebury is a complex that covers several square miles, with a main circular bank and ditch and lined with megaliths, delimiting the original thirty-acre site. In the eighteenth century, stones were dispersed among houses, gardens, and fields, making the layout difficult to discern. Avebury was not recognized as a human-made complex until 1649, when antiquarian John Aubrey stumbled across it during a hunting trip and discovered evidence of its intentional construction. [kw]Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury (1719-1724) [kw]Avebury, Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and (1719-1724) [kw]Stonehenge and Avebury, Stukeley Studies (1719-1724) [kw]Studies Stonehenge and Avebury, Stukeley (1719-1724) Stonehenge Avebury Stone temples [g]England;1719-1724: Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury[0530] [c]Archaeology;1719-1724: Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury[0530] [c]Science and technology;1719-1724: Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury[0530] [c]Architecture;1719-1724: Stukeley Studies Stonehenge and Avebury[0530] Stukeley, William Aubrey, John

Although the site at Avebury had gone undetected, speculation about Stonehenge abounded for centuries. It had been noticed since medieval times, and there were conflicting theories about its origin. In the early 1600’s, poet and antiquarian Edmund Bolton credited its construction to the legendary first century military and rebel leader, Queen Boudicca. English architect Inigo Jones, Jones, Inigo who made the first known architectural study of the site, believed that it was a temple built by the Romans. Later in the seventeenth century, Walter Charleton, physician to King Charles II, claimed it was built by Danes. Aubrey, after his discovery of Avebury, investigated both monuments and believed that they were of Druid Druids origin.

Stonehenge, located on the Salisbury Plain in southern England. The site is now cordoned off to protect the stone temple.

(Geo. L. Shuman and Co.)

William Stukeley first visited Stonehenge and Avebury (which he called, collectively, “Abury”) in 1719. Although he was a trained physician, he pursued studies in theology, science, and antiquities. A member of the Society of Antiquaries Society of Antiquaries (England) and a fellow of the Royal Society, he was a colleague of the most gifted individuals of eighteenth century England. He explored the English countryside, observing and recording ancient monuments.

Stukeley was familiar with Aubrey’s then-unpublished Monumenta Britannica: Or, A Miscellany of British Antiquities Monumenta Britannica (Aubrey) (1980-1982), which recorded Aubrey’s theories along with his observations and measurements of Avebury and Stonehenge. Like Aubrey, Stukeley believed that the monuments were built in pre-Roman times. Furthermore, he felt that his theory could be proven. He speculated that compilation of data about the circles and other ancient sites could provide information not obtainable from written sources.

There are few particulars about Stukeley’s visits to Avebury and Stonehenge in 1719 and 1720, but from 1721 to 1724, after he decided to develop a typology of ancient monuments, he detailed his studies. Although Aubrey’s work provided an underacknowledged precedent, it was not as encompassing as the project undertaken by Stukeley, who would, each summer, conduct fieldwork and live on site. Stukeley’s techniques of observation, accurate measurement, and detailed recording accompanied by carefully executed drawings have made him the foremost figure in eighteenth century English archaeology. Archaeology;England

Close observation was a key element in developing his typological study, as evident in his Itinerarium curiosum: Or, An Account of the Antiquitys and Remarkable Curiositys in Nature or Art Itinerarium curiosum (Stukeley) (1724). Here he noted common building characteristics, such as placement of upright stones in a circular pattern on elevated ground with a surrounding ditch, a surrounding plain, and an avenue of approach. Through this typology he wanted to show that Stonehenge and Avebury had the same provenance as other stone temples in England.

Much of his work was without precedent. He developed a vocabulary to describe his findings; he coined the term “trilithon,” for example, to describe two upright stones supporting a lintel. He pioneered the field of astroarchaeological Astroarchaeology studies by being the first to note that Stonehenge was astronomically aligned: The site’s assumed entrance marks the point of sunrise on the summer solstice. In 1721 he was the first to discern a raised area, which he called the “avenue,” extending from the entrance to Stonehenge toward the River Avon; although the lining stones were gone, he measured placement intervals after observing sockets remaining in the uncultivated ground. Also, in 1723, he discovered at Stonehenge a shallow enclosure of parallel ditches measuring 2 miles in length; he called this the “cursus,” speculating that it was an ancient racetrack. At Avebury he discovered similar stone-lined constructions leading toward West Kennet and Beckhampton.

To establish his typology, Stukeley needed measurements from many ancient sites. He stressed precision, believing valid conclusions could be drawn only from accurate comparisons. In 1723 he and Lord Winchelsea took two thousand measurements at Stonehenge, attempting to detect a common, indigenous standard of measurement, which Stukeley called “Druid’s cubit,” to prove pre-Roman origins of megalithic sites. Through reading and correspondence he also compiled measurements of stone circles located outside the sphere of Roman occupation.

In addition to recording his observations and measurements, Stukeley developed excavation techniques, which he compared to anatomical dissection. In 1722 and 1723 he and Lord Pembroke excavated Bronze Age barrows around Stonehenge. Stukeley’s careful technique surpassed anything undertaken prior to that time. He noted that stratigraphy had the potential to establish chronology. He studied construction of barrows and their funerary contents, made precise notes, and carefully drew a cross-section diagram, which was the first such visual record in British archaeology.

Drawings and diagrams played an important role in his fieldwork. From 1721 to 1723 he diagrammed the main circles within the great ditch at Avebury and also indicated the avenue of standing stones leading toward West Kennet. The avenue terminated in a double circle of standing stones called the “sanctuary” by local villagers. Stukeley then recorded what remained of the sanctuary and marked discernible sites of destroyed stones.

It has been suggested that the ongoing destruction Preservation;archaeological at Avebury and Stonehenge induced Stukeley to prepare records before the monuments were lost. In the Middle Ages, megaliths often were regarded as pagan relics and were buried. In the eighteenth century, the Avebury site was used as a quarry for building stone. Stukeley also noted that visitors hammered off pieces of the monuments for souvenirs. The owner of Avebury Manor destroyed part of the site’s embankment to build a barn. Each year, cultivation further eliminated features of the prehistoric landscape.

After he was ordained into the Church of England in 1729, Stukeley became increasingly conjectural in interpreting the past. Responding to the perceived threat of Enlightenment secularism, he romanticized Druids and postulated that the Church of England was prefigured in their ancient religion. In three works–Palaeographia sacra: Or, Discourses on Monuments of Antiquity That Relate to Sacred History Palaeographia sacra (Stukeley) (1736), Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids Stonehenge (Stukeley) (1740), and Abury: A Temple of the British Druids Abury (Stukeley) (1743)—he mixed religious speculation with his scientific fieldwork.


William Stukeley’s writing reflected the dual nature of thought in the eighteenth century, which incorporated rational-scientific as well as religious-Romantic ideas. His linking of Avebury and Stonehenge with Druidism became an enduring fallacy that was expressed in the Romantic tradition in English literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Poetry by Thomas Gray and William Collins reflected a “Druidical Revival,” as did works by the artist and poet William Blake. Blake, William

Because Stukeley’s scientific studies were intermingled with his Druidic theories, the accuracy of his field surveys has been questioned. Subsequent studies at Stonehenge and Avebury, however, have validated his work, which has provided a valuable record of historic sites before they were subjected to additional ravages of agricultural and economic development. Early aerial photography of the 1920’s corroborated Stukeley’s observations of the avenue at Stonehenge. Excavations in 1930 confirmed the existence of Avebury’s sanctuary, which was destroyed shortly after Stukeley’s documentation. The frontispiece to Abury provided accurate site information that was used in Alexander Keiller’s excavations of 1934 to 1938. The Beckhampton Avenue stones at Avebury no longer exist, but modern excavations substantiate Stukeley’s findings.

Stukeley was a key figure in bridging antiquarianism Antiquarianism and the emerging science of archaeology. His pioneering work, although based on Aubrey’s early techniques, provided the most thorough, systematic studies of Avebury and Stonehenge attempted before the nineteenth century. His careful observations, measurements, and diagrammed descriptions were significant components in the development of the field of archaeology. He compiled enough data to recognize that these structures represented a larger group of monuments scattered across Britain. He correctly conceived of these sites as prehistoric sanctuaries. At a time when scholars still used Old Testament chronologies for establishing historical dates, he set about proving that native Britons created the monuments in pre-Roman times.

He was among the first to recognize the historic value of the sites and to express concern over their preservation. Contemporary analysis of Stukeley’s detailed records reveals how much has been lost from the sites in the past two centuries, either taken or destroyed or both. Historians and archaeologists are indebted to Stukeley for charting the course and following the traces.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chippindale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004. This work examines the studies that have changed the initial interpretations of Stonehenge. Includes notes, references, photographs, drawings, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haycock, David. William Stukeley: Science, Religion, and Archeology in Eighteenth-Century England. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2002. Haycock reassesses the nature of eighteenth century antiquarianism. Includes a bibliography of Stukeley’s publications, extensive bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piggott, Stuart. William Stukeley: An Eighteenth-Century Antiquary. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985. A biography of Stukeley, with many reproductions, drawings, reconstructed journal entries, reconstructed journals of fieldwork at Avebury and Stonehenge, notes and references, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stukeley, William. The Commentarys, Diary, and Common-Place Book and Selected Letters of William Stukeley. London: Doppler Press, 1980. A 174-page collection of Stukeley’s personal writings and letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids and Abury, a Temple of the British Druids. New York: Garland, 1984. Updated reprints of Stukeley’s classic works on Stonehenge and Avebury. Includes an introductory essay and illustrations.

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