Described by Professor Ronald Hutton as “probably… the most important of the early forerunners of the discipline of archaeology”, William Stukeley was born this day in 1687 at Holbeach in Lincolnshire.
Although his father was a lawyer, medicine was William’s initial preferred area of study, which he followed at St Thomas’ Hospital in London after taking a degree at Cambridge. He returned to Lincolnshire to practice in 1710, where he forged friendships with the likes of Isaac Newton and William Wake (who was later to become Archbishop of Canterbury). At this time he also began his long distance travels around Britain, before returning to London once more in 1717. In London he joined several societies, including the Royal College of Physicians the Freemasons and the Society of Antiquaries – where he served as it’s first Secretary, a post he held for nine years. He also continued his travels in this period, becoming intimately aquainted with Avebury and Stonehenge, among other sites.
His dismay at the destruction of the megaliths to provide building material led him to prepare detailed surveys of the sites he visited – possibly the first recorded case of ‘Rescue Archaeology’. His travels were documented in 1724 as ‘Itineratium Curosium’.
He returned to Lincolnshire in 1726, and with the help of his friend William Wakes, was swiftly ordained and installed as vicar of All Saints in Stamford, where he served for seventeen years from 1730. His works on Stonehenge, “Stonehenge: a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids” and Avebury, “Abury: a temple of the British Druids” were published in 1740 and 1742, at which time he had become fascinated by the thought of early religions, and the Druids – so much so that he became known as the ‘Arch-Druid’ because of his writings on the subject.
Having returned to London in 1747, in 1752 Stukeley wrote a biography of his friend, Isaac Newton, and was the first to tell the story of the falling apple that inspired Newton’s most famous theory. Stukeley died in London on March 3rd, 1765.
A blue plaque, unveiled in 2010 at the site of his house in Barn Hill, Stamford describes him as an ‘antiquary’ and ‘the Father of British Archaeology’.