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Pioneering archaeologist a national treasure

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 08, 2013

  • Clockwise from top left: Dr William Stukeley; image of Exeter, by Stukeley from his Itinerarium Curiosum; bird's eye image of Avebury drawn in 1722; map of Exeter

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A new exhibition opens at Hartland Abbey tomorrow, marking the extraordinary life and times of a man whose work saved Stonehenge for the nation. Martin Hesp found out more.

If there is one thing this country has been rich in down the centuries it is Great British characters – and they do not come more colourful, brilliant, eccentric and intriguing than the man who told the world about the now famous apple falling on Isaac Newton's head.

The same great character did many other colourful things and achieved some brilliant work – and yet hardly anyone has ever heard of William Stukeley, even though he was generally credited as being the saviour of the nation's most famous historic landmark.

A new exhibition which opens tomorrow in Devon aims to change that; indeed, it is entitled William Stukeley – Saviour of Stonehenge.

The phrase "larger than life character" could have been invented especially for Stukeley – he once, for example, dissected a dead elephant in Sloane Square after the poor beast was neglected by its royal owners, only to be given a surfeit of beer by well-meaning, but misinformed, well-wishers. Even the story behind the new exhibition is a strange one – a portrait of the great but little-known doctor gazed down at the inhabitants of Hartland Abbey for years without anyone really knowing who he was, or what he had done.

Lady (Angela) Stucley (same name, modern spelling), wife of Hartland's current owner, Sir Hugh Stucley, takes over the story: "For many years, Dr William Stukeley has looked down on our family from the panelling above the fireplace. Curiosity encouraged us to want to know him better.

"After much research and help from many people, we feel we know so much more of this extraordinary character," Lady Stucley told the Western Morning News in the run-up to tomorrow's opening of the exhibition at Hartland Abbey.

"Our relationship to William Stukeley can be traced back to about 1440 when Sir Hugh Stukeley from Huntingdon married Catherin Afton, an early ancestor of the present family, who lived in the house at Affeton which the Stucley family inhabit today.

"Artist, prolific writer and poet, architect, archaeologist, antiquarian, scientist, physician, clergyman, druid, musician, numismatist, traveller, genealogist, gardener and animal lover... William Stukeley was all of these.

"He lived during the era of the Age of Enlightenment and the Grand Tours, a great time of learning and discovery," Lady Stucley explained.

"He himself believed it unnecessary to travel abroad to study antiquities when there was so much to discover in his native country.

"When asked why he did not travel to Europe, Stukeley replied 'I loved my own country and there was curiosity and antiquity enough at home to entertain any genius'."

Born in Lincolnshire in 1687, son of a local lawyer, Stukeley's career began in medicine – but he is best known for his work as a pioneering field archaeologist, especially at Stonehenge and Avebury.

"Today we owe him a debt of gratitude, not only for his accurate drawings and writings recording these monuments in the early 18th century but for the attention he brought at the time to their ongoing destruction," said Lady Stucley.

"It is in part thanks to Stukeley that we can enjoy this important part of our national heritage today."

His books Stonehenge: A Temple Restor'd To The British Druids and Abury: A Temple To The British Druids were not published until 20 years after he had visited in the early 1720s, by which time he had become obsessed by Druidism. "Had they been published at the time they would almost certainly have been a more factual and less fanciful interpretation of the great monuments in the same manner as his great travel journals from 1710, the Itinerarium Curiosum," said Lady Stucley.

Nearly 300 years ago a Dr Wise, Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, wrote: "Our knowledge of prehistoric Britain has been remarkably increased – upon the whole I cannot think of any branch of our Antiquities has received greater improvement than this. We may expect a still much better account, from a very learned and celebrated pen... That of Dr Stukeley."

"After Stukeley's death in 1765 it was not until the 19th century that archaeologists took up from where he had finished his work – and not until the 20th century was the soundness of his archaeological work fully appreciated," said Lady Stucley.

"Our small display attempts to illustrate the life of this great character.

"He was, for example, best friends with Isaac Newton – Stukeley basically told the nation about the apple and gravity because he was sitting next to him."

Find out more about the William Stukeley – Saviour of Stonehenge exhibition by visiting www.hartlandabbey.com or calling 01237 441234.

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