Skip to Content.

Kent Archaeological Review extract

William Stukeley.
by Geoffrey B Barrow.

The prevailing fashion for psycho-analysing the subjects of Biographies would have ample scope in the details of the life of William Stukeley. He was born in 1687 at Holbeach in the fenland area of Lincolnshire, the eldest son of John Stukeley who, with his brother Adlard (whose portrait, a pen wash, very ably executed by William, I possess) were lawyers'. It is unnecessary to detail the career of William during his long life as fashionable physician, clergyman, traveller and archaeologist, as this has been very competently performed by Stuart Piggott (William Stukeley, an Eighteenth-century Antiquary. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1950).

Stukeley had undoubted talents, and it must not be lost sight of that he is honoured, very properly, by his distinguished biographer with the epithet, "Father of Field Archaeology." Indeed his laborious travels, his careful observations on what he saw, and what he discovered by the aid of the spade, entitles him to our praise. We can also pay tribute to his abilities as a draughtsman and artist as well as his incredible industry. But, at the same time, it cannot be overlooked that particularly in the latter part of his life William Stukeley gave full bent to a highly charged imagination, and much of his work now became fantastic in the extreme.

When excavations first commenced at Keston I called to mind the pioneer work of Stukeley, who more than 200 years ago had passed this way and made his characteristic remarks on the ancient remains of the neighbourhood. I possess two volumes of Stukeley's manuscripts, and it amused me to compare what he had to say with the competent and scientific findings and methods which were now being brought to bear on the fascinating problems of Keston's remote past.

In those leisurely days of the 18th century, gentlemen of "taste" who were "antiquarians" would often disturb ancient monuments in a most arbitrary fashion (to the great loss of those who nowadays apply themselves to scientific archaeology) and adorn their libraries with the spoils in the shape of funerary urns. This was not all! The contemplation of these artefacts would inspire them (armed as they were with a good classical education) to write Essays and Dissertations (as Sir Thomas Browne had done in the 17th century) on "Urn-burial" in which there was usually immensely misplaced erudition, faulty etymologies, and the wildest visionary speculation. Stukeley, for all his excellent beginnings was no exception, but what he accomplished in the way of deductions was on the grandest scale, destined to have far reaching effect. The journey and conquests of Julius Caesar in Britain and the origin and teachings of the Druids. He was a prolific writer, and there is a vast bulk of his unpublished manuscripts in public and private collections. They repay perusal not only as records of the state of famous archaeological sites in his day, but also for testimony they bear to the vagaries of the human intellect.

Of his attempts to trace Caesar's movements throughout Kent and the Southeast, in a day-by-day account, my manuscripts by the indefatigable Stukeley show abundant evidence. But as to his researches on the Druids, his influence is even now to a certain extent felt. It is to his fertile imagination that we principally owe the well-known picture of the venerable Druidpriest, patriarch and sage -- with long white beard, hooded tunic and holding either a vast book or a branch of mistletoe. Such an obsession did Stukeley's Druid become in his own mind, that he would sign himself "Chyndonax, Archdruid" and (in his own words) he was "surprised to find them so near akin to the Christian doctrine."See reference[2].

Of his published writings we may cite a few titles to show the diverse nature of his speculations: "Earthquakes in Islamabad ... .. Flute Music ... .. Saxon burials at Chatteris," "Embalming of Mummys," "Origin of Cards," "Pedigree of Queen Anne from Noah,"See reference[3]. "Scheme for Repairs to the sinking pier of Westminster Bridge," and "Turbinate Water Wheels."

I omit the amusing hoax that was played upon poor Stukeley in the matter of the young Bertram's forgery of the De Situ Brittaniae attributed to the 14th century monk Richard of Cirencester. This was perhaps a little more excusable as no less an authority than Edward Gibbon was likewise deceived.

It may not be uninteresting to conclude this brief notice of Stukeley with a snippet or two from his notes which have some reference to Keston and district.

Piggott informs us that "the summer of 1725 saw Stukeley and Roger Galt setting out on what was to be the last of the great series of antiquarian journeys the former was to make". See reference[4]. This was their expedition to the North. It would seem from the manuscript in my collection that earlier that year Stukeley had been in Kent, for some detached notes of his dated 22nd May 1725 refer to "Addington Hill," "a high barren place conspicuous all the country over between Bromley and Croydon."

In view of the destructive methods then employed by antiquarians already alluded to, it is amusing to read Stukeley's denunciations in his notes and to learn from him the fate of early Keston documents. He writes -- "3 years ago some wretches dug up every barrow and took away all the urns leaving the disordered graves ..." He did apparently discover that these urns were "bak'd and had burnt bones and ashes in 'em." Then follows this illuminating account: "The schoolmr of Keston suffered the boys to make kites of the ancient records and writings in the town chest." Stukeley goes on to remark that "ro(man) bricks (were) dug up at Caesar's Camp, so call'd by Keston." At Sir John Leigh's house at Addington, Stukeley saw a very small "urn" whereof he gives a sketch, and also mentions the remains of a camp and barrows on a hill east of W. Wickham.

Stukeley died on the 3rd of March 1765. He was a strange figure. In his earlier days he had done much good field work, especially at Avebury and Stonehenge, but his latter years were marred by the increasing tendency to speculation and fantasy. The moral seems too plain: a good archaeologist must never allow objective, scientific explorations to be contaminated by the poetic and imaginative faculty.


[1] In a sale of Stukeley MSS held at Sotheby's, 19th Feb. 1963, there was one item in which Stukeley deduces his ancestry from Merovatus, King of France in AD 449!

[2] Surtees Soc. Vol. LXXIII page 106; A. L. Owen: The Famous Druids. A survey of three centuries of English Literature on the Druids. Oxford, 1962.

[3] Stukeley seems to have looked upon Noah as some sort of Druid, and I have more than one "portrait" of the Patriarch from the hand of the redoutabte enthusiast, himself.

[4] p. 79.

Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.