Contributor: Jorunn Joiner
Location: Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England (51°10′44″N 1°49′34″W)
Description: The stone circle of Stonehenge is Britain’s most famous monument from a long-lost past. The circa 13 feet high stones, arranged in two circles with horizontal stones as lintels, suggest an impossible feat of construction, and featured in Edmund Burke’s taxonomy of the sublime: “Stonehenge, neither for disposition nor ornament, has anything admirable; but those huge rude masses of stone, set on end, and piled each on other, turn the mind on the immense force necessary for such a work”. (1) Antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries posited the circle to have been constructed by the Druids. In William Blake’s prophetic book Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820), Stonehenge accordingly appears as a national landmark, and the site of ancient sacrificial rites. (2)
During the eighteenth century, Salisbury Plain and its stone circle became a popular attraction for antiquarians, artists, and poets alike. Whilst Stonehenge had been excavated and recorded in the late seventeenth century by John Aubrey (1626-1697), it was eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley (1687-1765) who brought the site to widespread attention. In Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (1740), Stukeley builds on Aubrey’s excavations and complements them with his own studies, complete with detailed illustrations of the exact position and measurement of each stone (fig. 1). Stonehenge describes the antiquarian’s journey into the centre of the circle, and came to function both as documentation of the site as it stood in the eighteenth century, as well as an inspiring travel narrative for contemporary readers. (3) Following Stukeley, the artists who were inspired to visit Stonehenge focused less on the exact construction of the monument, and favoured instead the site’s aesthetic effects. In portrayals by John Carter (illustrations in Ancient Architecture of Britain, 1795), George Englehart (Stonehenge, 1820), and J.M.W. Turner (Stonehenge, c.1827-28), the stones are placed in their pastoral surrounding, often with fittingly sublime and stormy weather.
Stukeley, like Aubrey, thought the site Druidic, but this was not the only theory at the time. The title of Stukeley’s book attempts to ‘restore’ Stonehenge to the Druids, and is a retort to seventeenth-century antiquarian Walter Charleton’s (1707-1619) suggestion that the stone circle was in fact built by ancient Scandinavians. Combined with a general conflation of the Celtic and the Norse into a shared ‘Gothic’ ancestry of Northern Europe, the Scandinavian theory continued to prevail throughout the long eighteenth century. It was particularly popularized by James Macpherson’s (1736-1796) poems of ‘Ossian’. In Fingal (1761), for example, the Scandinavian antagonists raise stone circles to pray to Odin. (4) The hypothesis of a connection between Stonehenge and the Norse past was not unfounded, as many travel narratives from this period often noted similarities between British and Scandinavian standing stone circles. In many of these accounts, Stonehenge is the natural point of comparison, and functions as the ideal archetype of this kind of megalithic monument. (5)
The mystery and sublimity of Stonehenge also inspired William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Wordsworth wrote three iterations of the poem “Salisbury Plain, or A Night on Salisbury Plain”, first published in 1793-4. In this poem, ghosts of “gigantic beings … throned on that dread circle’s summit gray / of mountains hung in air”, Druids, and spectral screams of human sacrifice, appear to a lone wanderer in a stormy night, who on Salisbury Plain meets a fellow vagrant woman and hears her tale of death and war. (6) The poem politicizes the national landmark, as the site’s history of sacrifice and suffering is portrayed as still haunting Britain in the late eighteenth century. The speaker in “Salisbury Plain” suggests that the horrors performed in the stone circle have only been transformed into new horrors of imperialism and oppression, and the poem ends with a call to eradicate all remains of despotism and superstition, “save that eternal pile which frowns on Sarum’s plain”; (7) a reminder for Britain of its blood-soaked origins.
Whereas very few would today associate Stonehenge with Odin, the Scandinavian connection could still be found in the early nineteenth century. In Ann Radcliffe’s (1764-1823) “Salisbury Plains – Stonehenge”, published posthumously in 1826, the stone circle is portrayed as the result of a fight between a dragon-sorcerer and a hermit – the first Druid – equipped with Odin’s protection and magic. (8) The stones are the teeth of the dragon, planted into the ground by the hermit on the Norse god’s orders. Whereas Radcliffe is often known for explaining the supernatural in her work, “Salisbury Plains” is a fantastical origin myth and the imaginative conclusion of influences from a century of antiquarian interest in the site, trans-European travel, and aesthetic considerations of sublime grandeur. In the centuries to follow, Stonehenge has been solidly restored to the Druids in public imagination, but the true builders of the stone circle remain shrouded in mystery.
Date: c. 3000 BC – 2000 BC
Creator: Built in stages by various groups of ancient Britons
Media: J.M.W. Turner, Stonehenge (c.1827-28), watercolour on paper.
Media rights:With kind permission of Salisbury Museum ©
Object type: Sarsen and Bluestone standing stone monument
Related objects: Fingal’s cave
- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Paul Guyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), ii, p.63.
- William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, in The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, rev. ed., ed. David V. Erdman, (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), plates 57, 58, 66-68.
- William Stukeley, Stonehenge A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids, (London: W. Innys & R. Manby, 1740). For more information on Stukeley and the antiquarian interest in Stonehenge, see Stuart Piggott, William Stukeley, an Eighteenth-century Antiquary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), and Rosemary Sweet, Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Hambledon and London, 2004)
- James Macpherson, Fingal, in The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), book iii, p.73.
- See, for example: Nathaniel Wraxall, Cursory Remarks Made in a Tour Through Some of the Northern Parts of Europe, (London: T. Cadell, 1775), pp.77-78; William Coxe, Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, 3rd vol., (Dublin: Price et. al., 1784), pp. 425-428; Robert Ker Porter, Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden (London: Richard Phillips, 1809), p.181.
- William Wordsworth, “Salisbury Plain, or A Night on Salisbury Plain”, in The Salisbury Plain Poems of William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), p. 26-27, stanza 20, lines 4, 7-8.
- Ibid., p. 38, stanza 61, line 9.
- Radcliffe, Ann, “Salisbury Plains – Stonehenge”, in Gaston de Blondeville, or the Court of Henry III, vol. 4, (London: Henry Colburn, 1826), pp. 109-161.