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Antiquaries and romantics
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Due to a renewed interest in the ancient past during the XVII century, new ways of trying to understand Stonehenge were employed. In 1629 the Duke of Buckingham had a hole dug in the centre of the monument, but was disappointed as it produced nothing more than “stages hornes and bulls hornes and charcoals”. While an archaeologist today would be more than satisfied with such a collection of samples for radiocarbon dating, he did not consider them of any great interest.

Antiquaries and romantics

Portrait of John Aubrey (1626 – 97), a Wiltshire-born antiquary who produced the first plan of Stonehenge (engraving by Van den Gucht).

King James I decided that Stonehenge should be studied in detail and engaged the architect Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652) to carry out the work. Jones concluded that Stonehenge could not have been built by the native Britons, as they were, “a savage and barbarous people… destitute of the knowledge… to erect stately structures or such remarkable works as Stonehenge”. Onto the plan of Stonehenge, Jones superimposed an elaborate geometrical design consisting of four equilateral triangles within a circle. He needed a degree of imagination to do this: an extra trilithon had to be added to create the required perfect symmetry, but to Jones it was sufficient proof that Stonehenge must have been built by the Romans.

Antiquaries and romantics

William Stukeley, who first noticed the Avenue and the Cursus,after a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1721.

The Danes and Phoenicians soon appeared alongside the Saxons and Romans as potential builders of Stonehenge, although there were some who began to suggest that the ancient Britons were responsible. Among these was John Aubrey (1626 – 97), Wiltshire-born antiquary.

Antiquaries and romantics

Antiquaries and romantics

Stonehenge by Inigo Jones, drawn as he imagined its original geometric design, and in its rugged reality.

He realized that it was a fruitless exercise searching for the builders of Stonehenge in written historical records because such sites were “so exceeding old that no Bookes doe reach them”. Aubrey produced his first plan of Stonehenge in 1666. It was one of the first accurate drawings of the site ever made and on it he noted a series of “cavities in the ground” close to the inner edge of the bank. Over 250 years later excavation proved that these depressions marked the position of large pits that were named Aubrey Holes after the man who had noticed them first. Many of Aubrey’s ideas are fanciful but he did conclude correctly that Stonehenge was a temple built by the ancient Britons, even though he wrongly assumed that the priests attending the temple were Druids.

Antiquaries and romantics

The Bard, by Thomas Jones (1742 – 1803) showing a Welsh Druid in a rugged landscape containing a monument strikingly similar to Stonehenge.

John Aubrey’s ideas were taken up in the early XVIII century by William Stukeley, a Lincolnshire-born doctor and pioneering field archaeologist. He had the great advantage of seeing the downland that surrounded Stonehenge before much of it was ploughed up, and was the first to notice not only the Avenue leading up to Stonehenge, but also the Cursus, a long Neolithic earthwork just to the north of Stonehenge.

Stukeley also coined the term trilithon (from the Greek for three stones), to describe the arrangement of two uprights capped by a horizontal lintel. Unfortunately, however, Stukeley too became obsessed with the idea of Stonehenge being a Druid temple, and this coloured many of his later observations.

On 3 January 1797 an entire trilithon collapsed. This was the first recorded fall of stones at Stonehenge. Amongst those who visited at this time was William Cunnington (1758 – 1810) who went on to investigate many of the barrows that surrounded Stonehenge, together with his fellow archaeologist, Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758 – 1838). But although the two men applied increasingly scientific methods to their investigations, Stonehenge remained a mystery. Colt Hoare, in his Ancient History of Wiltshire, described it in the following words: “How Grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible!”

Antiquaries and romantics

An early photograph of Stonehenge, showing the tallest upright at a precarious angle, in about 1885.

It may have been incomprehensible to Colt Hoare, but to many artists of the XVIII and XIX centuries Stonehenge was an inspiration. Its rugged stones were the epitome of the picturesque ruin: wild, romantic and often placed not in its rather plain downland setting but in wild and imaginary Druid-inhabited landscapes.
In 1883 Stonehenge was formally recognized as a monument of national importance, protected by the newly introduced Ancient Monuments Act. In practical terms, however, nothing changed: Stonehenge remained neglected and crumbling and on 31 December 1900, the last day of the XIX century, another stone fell.

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