a guest feature by Mark Patton.

Silbury and the Roman road by William Stukeley

When, in 1865, Sir John Lubbock and James Fergusson argued, in the pages of the Athenaum magazine, as to whether the Roman road passed around Silbury Hill (as Lubbock thought, making the hill itself prehistoric) or beneath it (as Fergusson insisted, making the hill post-Roman), far more was at stake than simply the dating of one of England’s iconic monuments. The argument, fundamentally, was about whether archaeology should be seen as an adjunct to history, its discoveries sterile unless they could somehow be related to the written record; or as an essentially scientific pursuit, allowing prehistoric cultures to be understood on the basis of the material evidence alone.

Lubbock, however, was not the first to beat the drum for scientific archaeology on Salisbury Plain. The Guernseyman, William Collings Lukis, a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, was ordained as a priest at Salisbury Cathedral in 1842, and subsequently served in the parishes of Bradford-upon-Avon, East Grafton, Great Bedwyn, Collingbourne Ducis and Marlborough, before moving to Yorkshire in 1862. During his time in the county, Lukis served as an officer of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, and began to explore those prehistoric monuments which were to fill the pages of his later publications. In 1849, he visited Silbury Hill with the Archaeological Institute and made a drawing, recently rediscovered in the collection of the Devizes Museum[1], which appears to show a slump of material into the shaft that had been dug into the mound by Edward Drax in 1776.

Lukis’s publications, which include a series of articles published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association and elsewhere in the 1860’s, as well as his better known volumes, Rude Stone Monuments (1875) and (with William Borlase) Prehistoric Stone Monuments of the British Isles: Cornwall (1885), were among the first to deal scientifically with British megaliths, and to reject any frame of reference that related them to Roman descriptions of the pre-conquest religions of the British Isles.

The spade and the sieve,” he wrote, in 1864, “have scattered to the winds all opinions of [megaliths] having been erected as altars for [druidic] worship…A man who…will gravely maintain that these monuments were not sepulchral chambers, but altars for human sacrifice, runs great risk, if not of being immolated on a capstone yet of being pulled to pieces and thoroughly pounded and smashed on the altar of his own rearing, by archaeological gentlemen who, however amiable and gentle they may appear… are somewhat merciless when they catch an unlucky propounder of improbable and strange doctrines wandering within the limits of that domain which they are pleased to consider legitimately their own”[2].

Lukis’s view offended against the prevailing historical orthodoxy of men such as Sir John Gardner Wilkinson who, four years earlier, had written:

If we are not to trust to the authority of Roman writers who mention the druids, what is to be our guide? And if history is to be unceremoniously put aside, on what are we to depend for any information respecting the inhabitants, the manners and the religion of Britain and Gaul, or the state of any other country of antiquity? We may at once cease to read history if mere speculations are to take their place”[3].

The spade and the sieve had been Lukis’s constant companions throughout his childhood, more so, it would seem, than editions of Caesar or Tacitus. The third son of the pioneering archaeologist, Frederick Corbin Lukis, William had played an active role, together with his brothers and sister, in their father’s excavations of megaliths on Guernsey and Herm in the 1830’s and 40’s. With remarkable prescience, Frederick Corbin Lukis[4] had commented on the absence of metal objects from the “primeval” layers in the Guernsey megaliths, and their presence in later strata, prefiguring by several years the development of the Three Age System by C.J. Thomsen and J.J.A. Worsaae in Denmark. William’s elder brother, Frederick Collings Lukis, was among the first archaeologists in the English-speaking world explicitly to adopt the Danish model, and to follow Worsaae in his insistence on an “…inquiry into the history of these early monuments, without prejudice, by means of the antiquities alone.[5]”

Thus, by the time William Collings Lukis arrived in Wiltshire, two decades before Lubbock published Prehistoric Times, there was already little doubt about the direction in which his archaeological researches would take him. He was in no great hurry to publish (the church, together with his growing family – he married Lucy Fellowes in 1851, and they would have nine children – took up most of his time), but neither was he waiting for Lubbock or anyone else to show him the way forward. Lukis and Lubbock reached their essentially similar conclusions about prehistory largely independently of one another, guided, in Lukis’s case, by the evidence of “the spade and the sieve,” and the influence of his father; and, in Lubbock’s, by a conceptual framework borrowed from the natural sciences, and strengthened by his long association with Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley.

Mark Patton’s biography of Sir John Lubbock is published by Ashgate (2007). For more information on the Lukis family, see Heather Sebire (ed) 2009 Pursuits and Joys: Great Victorian Antiquarians and Intellects – The Lukis Family of Guernsey and their Contemporaries. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[1] B. Edwards 2002 “A Missing Drawing and an Overlooked Text: Silbury Hill Archive Finds.” Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 95, 89-92.

[2] W.C. Lukis 1864 “On Cromlechs.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 22, 249-263.

[3] J. Gardner Wilkinson 1860 “The Rock Basins of Dartmoor, and Some British Remains in England.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 16, 101-132.

[4] F.C. Lukis 1844 “Observations on the Primeval Antiquities of the Channel Islands.” Archaeological Journal 1, 142-151.

[5] F.C. Lukis 1849 “On the Sepulchral Character of Cromlechs in the Channel Islands.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 4, 323-337.