At solstice-tide, what could be more fitting than some thoughts about Stonehenge? (Well, probably a lot of things, but please humour me…)

Photograph of the reverse of the Royal Society's bronze Stukeley medal, featuring Stonehenge

Apart from the seasonality of the theme, my interest in the topic was initially piqued when I stumbled across a book about the monument by Inigo Jones, published posthumously by John Webb in 1655. I had no idea that Jones had moved into architectural pursuits after his career as a theatrical designer, so I was intrigued to see what he had to say about it.

Very briefly, in the book he revisits some of the wonderful legends about Merlin bringing the stones over from Ireland by magical means (by which he was not convinced), and concludes that the Ancient Britons could not have built such a structure, ascribing it to the Romans instead.

Plan demonstrating Inigo Jones' interpretation of Stonehenge as a Roman temple

click image to open a larger copy (pdf)

Quite apart from the content, I was also somewhat sidetracked by our copy as an object itself – it has been very beautifully type-set, but omissions have been inserted on so many pages I wonder if it was some kind of proof edition.

Page from Jones' book showing a number of correction

Our next book on the subject was written by John Smith, published in 1771. This has the rather grand title “Choir Gaur; the grand orrery of the ancient druids, commonly called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, astronomically explained, and mathematically proved to be a temple erected in the earliest ages, for observing the motions of the heavenly bodies.”

Smith also considers the history of the monument, and then spends some time describing its present appearance in order to demonstrate how the theorems of his predecessors (Jones, Wood and Stukeley) were wrong.

Smith's ground plan of Stonehenge

click image to open a larger copy (pdf)

In 1880, W.M. Flinders Petrie surveyed Stonehenge, considered the arguments of those who had gone before him, and concluded that further investigation was needed. He also asserted that “[a]nother work, very urgently needed, is securing the great trilithon upright” (p.33) and proposed a strategy for so doing.

Rather neatly, a further publication in our collection, William Gowland’s “Recent excavations at Stonehenge”, contains (amongst other things) some wonderful photographs of that very stone being reset:

Photograph from Gowland's Excavations

There are clearly very many more things to say on this subject, which leaves the floor clear for future solstice posts – let us know in the comments if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about, and we’ll see if our collections can oblige!

  • Matt Penny

    There’s some good stuff about Inigo Jones and the influence of Stonehenge on his architecture in Rosemary Hill’s ‘Stonehenge’ if you’re interested.

    • Thanks for this Matt, I’ll have to seek it out.

  • Anonymous

     It will be very nice if Royal Society shall publish Lord Buckingham’s studies over Stonehenge and letters of Sir Francis concerning that issue, if they are available.

    • Thanks for this – I’m not sure whether we have any of this material in our collections, but if you have any more details of it I can certainly check to see if we do.

      • Anonymous

        archive notes remained at home while I moved to live into other place, but as
        far as I remember Duke Buckingham (sorry for error made in typing above) was
        considering Stonehenge as gateway to the world of the spirits and made the
        early excavations, e.g. 
        “Mr. Webb tells us, the Duke of Buckingham dug about Stonehenge: I fear much to the prejudice of the work. He himself did the like, and found what he imagin’d was the cover of a thuribulum. He would have done well to have given us a drawing of it. But whatever it was, vases of incense, oil, slower, salt, wine and holy water, were used by all nations in their religious ceremonies.”
        I remember that somewhere were notes about some letters
        of Sir Francis concerning the origins of the Stonehenge, which probably had
        some concern with data preserved in the former library of Sir Robert Bruce
        Cotton. As far as I remember
        I somewhere read some rumors  telling
        that some curious ladies and gentlemen in old England were practicing Out of
        Body experiments nearby Stonehenge during the years when the New Atlantis been
        written. I am sure that some details concerning excavations of Duke Buckingham
        will be very useful to highlight the heritage of research activities concerning the Stonehenge.  

      • I’ve just checked in the archive catalogue and whilst the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers (which I think is the right Duke?) was a Fellow I’m afraid we don’t seem to have any of his papers. Which is a pity, as this does all sound most interesting.

      • Anonymous

        I was talking about the 1st
        Duke of Buckingham.
        Have you noted that my previous comment responding to your one disappeared. A technical error, probably, is not it?

      • Sorry about that – it’s still showing in our comment software so I don’t know why it isn’t coming up on the web. If it hasn’t reappeared by tomorrow I’ll get a more technical colleague to look into it! The 1st Duke predates the Royal Society, so is sadly out of our remit.