William Stukeley: An Eighteenth-Century Phenomenologist? (Debate)

Article excerpt


The work of the early eighteenth-century antiquary William Stukeley is well known, particularly his recording of the complex of prehistoric monuments around Avebury in north Wiltshire, one of the most spectacular and intensively studied prehistoric sites in England. The complex comprises the large henge and multiple stone circle in Avebury village itself and two megalithic avenues: the West Kennet avenue to the south-east (which linked the smaller stone and timber circle known as The Sanctuary to the Avebury circles), and the Beckhampton Avenue to the west. Between the two avenues and to the south of the main henge is the large mound of Silbury Hill, and the recently discovered palisade enclosures at West Kennet (Whittle 1997). William Stukeley (1687-1765) was one of the first people to appreciate these monuments and the fieldwork he carried out has been re-examined repeatedly. Colt Hoare (1821: 65-78), Crawford, Keiller (Crawford & Keiller 1923; Smith 1965) and Ucko et al. (1991) have all used Stukeley's records to try and elucidate the more fragmentary remains surviving at later dates. Piggott (1985), Ucko et al. (1991) and Haycock (1999) have also tried to explain the intellectual background to the fieldwork and to place it in its historical context. Each of these re-appraisals has given us a slightly different image of Stukeley, viewed through the interests of the various writers.

This paper arose from my personal encounter with the Stukeley archive, as part of an ongoing research project centred on the Avebury complex and in particular the Beckhampton Avenue in Longstones field, west of Avebury (Gillings, Pollard & Wheatley 2000). This project, a collaborative venture between the Universities of Leicester, Newport and Southampton, aims to explore the context and sequence of late Neolithic monument development in the Avebury landscape (Pollard & Gillings 1998: Pollard, Gillings & Wheatley 1999). While I will not do more than touch upon the detailed discussions of Stukeley's ideas and motivations offered by Piggott (1985: 79-109), Ucko et al. (1991: 48-59, 74-98) and Haycock (1999), I want to bring out a strand of Stukeley's thinking that is particularly visible in his Avebury fieldwork. This is the parallel noted by Haycock (1999: 68), with some recent archaeological approaches to monuments and landscapes (for example Tilley 1994; Richards 1996). Grouped together under the general term 'phenomenological', this work is concerned with bodily experiences of landscape and place, as distinct from interpretations mediated by the more two dimensional representations of space employed in traditional cartography.

The Stukeley Archive

Stukeley worked at Avebury between 1719 and 1724. The surviving notes from this fieldwork can be divided into four main types: there are pen and wash drawings of 'prospects', views of the surviving parts of the Avebury monuments and their eighteenth-century landscape settings (Bodl. MS Gough Maps 231 f223r, for example); there are pages, often discontinuous and fragmentary, of written field notes (such as Bodl. MS Gough Maps 231 f36v); there is a description of the monument in the incomplete and unpublished manuscript entitled The History of the Temples of the Ancient Celts (Bodl. MS Eng. Misc. c323); and there is the published account of the site in Avebury: A Temple of the British Druids (Stukeley 1743). As both Piggott (1985: 97-109) and Ucko et al. (1991: 83-92) have pointed out, Stukeley's vision of Avebury was not constant, but two of his understandings of the monumental complex have become particularly well-known. One scheme, probably the earliest, saw the north and south circles within Avebury as temples to the moon and sun respectively, the outer circle at Avebury as a sacred space surrounding these temples, with a pair of symmetrical stone avenues joining this space to a temple of Ertha or the earth at the Sanctuary and a temple of Mercury, or the Manes (spirits of the underworld) in a corresponding position at the end of the Beckhampton Avenue. …