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William Stukeley: Science, Religion and…

William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century…

by David Boyd Haycock

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37. William Stukeley : Science, Religion and Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century England by David Boyd Haycock (2002, 303 pages, read July 31 - Aug 11)

I should be able to give a quick summary of this book, but the first quick review I tried to write went on and on. So, up front, this is a PhD dissertation slightly modified for publication. It's not the best reading, although that does not mean the author can't write. I suspect he can be a very good writer. But this is a fact-tsunami. I wrote down fifty names in my notes for chapter one. Each section is basically an entire field of research broken down into a summary with numerous citations. (Parry's The Trophies of Time gets a large portion of a section all cited to it). The purpose is to un-romanticize William Stukeley's apparent change in character. Stukeley was a close friend of Newton and spent much of his career in what is generally considered serious research, making a classic study of Stonehenge, for example, with careful observation, measurement, the first excavations, and thoughtful comparison to other megalithic structures. In this he is considered unusual for and ahead of his time. But later in life he started publishing religious-driven interpretations that were, first of all, far outside the religious norms, and second, not really based on any of his observations. He also later became a minister. The change is striking. But Haycock shows there was never any change. Stukeley was always very religious, as was Newton and most of his small close circle (although some were openly atheist). But, like Newton, Stukeley couldn't publish any of this wacky stuff until later in life, in a different time and with a better reputation. When he felt the time came (significantly, long after Newton's passing) he then happily compromised and contradicted his own observations to make his strange points.

All this may sound fascinating, but, unfortunately, at least where Stukeley is concerned, it's not all that interesting. Haycock successfully demystifies and exposes Stukeley - first of all as a terrible scientist (my conclusion, not Haycock's) with a tendency to make bold conclusions that were not supported by any data and commonly lacked what I would consider basic common sense. His idea that thunder causes earthquakes was published, respected and taken very seriously. Of course it's pure (and moronic) conjecture. His idea that Elephants mate with the female on her back, based on his (maybe not so careful) dissection of an elephant, made it into reference books. But this was an era when science was nascent, and the scientific method was preached but hardly followed. Also, Stukeley's religious ideas aren't very interesting. They aren't spiritual, or deep, or psychologically complex, but merely an effort to make an argument. He was stuck on this idea that holy trinity predates Christianity, something that was also important to Isaac Newton, who felt differently. So Stukeley managed to find in Stonehenge and, especially in Avebury, a large and fanciful expression of a Druidic trinity (the fact that these megalithic structures predate the Druids by about 1500 years wasn't known till much later...although one might have simply observed the lack of bronze or iron tools...but that would require some fundamental skills in archeology. Anyway, I'm digressing.)

But, Haycock's book is almost more about Isaac Newton than the Stukeley he ruins, and in this it is rewarding. Newton was a complex oddity. He was highly religious in heretical ways, but also very private. So he never published about his religious ideas during his lifetime, and what he did publish was cleaned of all this, and strictly observational, making him appear to have been one of the early pure scientists. He consorted with similarly minded people of the era, but only a few and was very touchy about who he would get close to. Stukeley was in with Newton, then out, and then later back in again, all for supporting or contradicting Newton's ideas. In exploring Newton and his world, Haycock, of course, covers about everybody, but he brings out a lot of color to the quirky world of the English Royal Society. Filled with experts and amateurs of all sorts, the society was strikingly open and contradictory. It's interesting to see how Newton's private and public views worked within the Royal Society, providing some structure, but not pushing too fast for purely secular, atheistic methodology. He bridges two errors quite gracefully...well in this limited view, anyway. (Wait till I review the [The Clockwork Universe]...Newton was an astounding A$$).

This is another book I was led to by Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill. Hill made Stukeley sound absolutely fascinating. She cited Haycock with some kind of praise because I've been eying his book for years, but it lists on amazon for around $100. I found and read a copy available for free online, here: http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/prism.php?id=135&name=33

To see my review within the context of my LT thread, go here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/154187#4311842 ( )
2 vote dchaikin | Oct 7, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0851158641, Hardcover)

Dr William Stukeley (1687-1765) was the most renowned English antiquary of the eighteenth century. This study discusses his life and achievements, placing him firmly within his intellectual milieu, which he shared with his illustrious friend Isaac Newton and with other natural philosophers, theologians and historians. Stukeley's greatest memorial was his work on the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury: at a time when most historians believed they were Roman or medieval monuments, he proved that they were of much greater antiquity, and his influence on subsequent interpretations of these monuments and their builders was enormous. For Stukeley, these stone circles - the work of 'Celtic Druids', were a link in the chain that connected the pristine religion of Adam and Noah with the modern Anglican Church. Historians today belittle such speculations, but Stukeley shared his vision of lost religious and scientific knowledge with many of the great minds of his day; this account shows how throughout his distinguished career his antiquarian researches fortified his response to Enlightenment irreligion and the threat he believed it posed to science and society.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:58 -0400)

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