Interpreting Stonehenge in the 17th Century

This follows from the previous post, describing the strategies used by Robert Hooke in the 1660s for understanding snowflakes.  As I mentioned there, Hooke thought that snowflakes were the ruins of once-perfect forms, having suffered much from violent winds on their way down to the ground.

A number of people moving in Hooke’s circle – and those who came before and influenced it – were intrigued by another set of ruins.  These were the ruins making up Stonehenge.  We can find some fascinating parallels between the drawings and interpretative moves that they used to try to understand what that famous stone circle had once looked like, and those use by Hooke on snowflakes.

Inigo Jones’s Roman Stonehenge

One of the most influential seventeenth-century interpretations of Stonehenge was put together by the famous architect Inigo Jones. He is remembered today as England’s first major architect in the classical style: you can see the Banqueting House that he designed for Charles I on Whitehall. Charles was later executed in front of that very building.

It might come as a surprise, given all that we now know about Stonehenge, to learn that Inigo Jones declared it to be a Roman building. In fact, he even asserted that he knew exactly what the ruin had once looked like, and that he could therefore decode its meaning precisely. Like Hooke, he tried to draw the building as it once had been – not as it appeared to his own eyes. Here is one of his most important drawings:


Plate 2 from Inigo Jones, The most notable Antiquity of Great Britain Vulgarly called STONE-HENGE on Salisbury Plain. Restored by INIGO JONES Esquire, Architect Generall to the late KING, edited by John Webb (London, 1655).

For Jones, this drawing of the ground plan of Stonehenge as it must once have been was a key piece of evidence proving its Roman origins. This was because it demonstrated – if his reconstruction was correct – that the inner circle of stones formed a hexagon. You can see it marked out in the centre of the image above, formed in the middle of 4 equilateral triangles drawn into the ground plan. The existence of this hexagon was the key, as Jones saw it, to the meaning of Stonehenge. It poved to him that a Roman architect must have come up with the design:

‘the Scheam also by which this work Stoneheng formed, was an Architectonicall Scheam used by the Romans.’

In other words, Jones’s own reconstruction of the geometric plan of Stonehenge proved that it had been designed by a Roman architect – just the sort of architect who would design ground plans based on regular, geometrical forms such as squares, rectangles, hemispheres, hexagons and so on. This in turn validated Jones’s choice of drawing. Since the building had been built by Roman architects, it made sense to represent Stonehenge using just the sort of drawing – a ground plan – used by all Roman architects to begin their designs. Such a drawing would reveal much more about the intentions of the designer than one that focused on the appearance of individual stones or some other aspect of Stonehenge.

Having made these moves, Jones could set about decoding Stonehenge by finding other Roman buildings that, he thought, had been designed with similar ground-plans and similar proportions. By consulting the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius he could easily conclude that Stonehenge had once been a temple dedicated to the God Uranus. As Robert Hooke did when comparing his snowflakes to urine crystals, he sought out more perfect examples of the design that he thought he had located in the ruins before his eyes, using those more perfect examples to work out what the ruins had once been like. Here is another of Jones’s is startling images of a Roman Stonehenge:


Competing Interpretations: Isaac Newton and John Aubrey

Unsurprisingly, Jones’s interpretation didn’t gain much traction in the second half of the century. But Hooke’s contemporaries, including Isaac Newton and the antiquary John Aubrey, kept up his interest in Stonehenge and were much influenced by his ideas. Newton, for example, rejected the idea that the plan of the monument was hexagonal – but only to suggest that the plan was in fact heptagonal. This seven-sided configuration also indicated the work of ancient architects who designed using plans. However, it suggested a rather different meaning and possibly different builders too. Newton ventured the possibility that the designers had opted for seven sides because they wanted to indicate that there were seven planets in orbit around the sun. Perhaps, he suggested, the builders of Stonehenge had been skilled architects who sought to embed astronomical knowledge in the plans of their buildings.

It remained for Aubrey to debunk such esoteric theories. He came closest in the seventeenth century to attributing Stonehenge to its real builders by arguing that it was essentially pre-architectural, having been designed and built by ancient Britons who did not lay out buildings in the Roman/classical manner. In his own notes, Aubrey demonstrated this by trying – and failing – to draw the layout of Stonehenge inside the hexagon that, according to Jones, it ought to fit into. Here are some of his efforts:

You can see how Aubrey's drawings of the outline of the inner circle of Stonehenge compare very poorly to the hexagon drawn on the right.

You can see how Aubrey’s drawings of the outline of the inner circle of Stonehenge compare very poorly to the hexagon drawn on the right. Even the heptagons that he manages to draw are rather uneven.

By rejecting Jones’s ‘hexagon’ theory, Aubrey made the work of interpreting Stonehenge’s design much harder. No longer could he refer to ancient architectural manuals in order to search out the meanings of certain forms and proportions. Instead, he had to trawl through a mass of evidence that we would now see as archaeological and ethnographic, trying to tease out meaning from sources that did not reveal it easily. Jones, on the other hand, tapped into a powerful design paradigm, confident in the assumption that his drawings revealed the most meaningful and revealing aspects of Stonehenge’s design. Aubrey also thought that Stonehenge had been designed – but he suspected that its meaning would be harder to uncover, and that it might not be so easily revealed in a series of formal drawings.

Natural History and Design

There are here, I think, many fascinating parallels to the work that Hooke did in trying to reveal the design of snowflakes. Like the restorers of Stonehenge, he thought that his samples were ruined, and that he had to work in order to find out what they had once been like. He tried to represent them in a way that might reveal the most important aspects of their form, and he sought out comparisons that might help inform the representations he had made. In fact, naturalists like Hooke often found themselves dealing with ruined samples of nature, whether bruised and battered animal skins or dried up bits of plant. Very often they found themselves having to describe not what they saw in front of them, but instead what that thing had once been like. And to do this they used, as we will see in the third post of this series, very similar resources to those employed by the restorers of Stonehenge. In part, this was because of one very important similarity that they perceived between buildings like Stonehenge and natural productions like snowflakes. They thought that all of these things had been designed by an intelligent agent, and that it made sense to interpret them in ways that would reveal the operations of that agent. They believed that natural things and works of art alike could be made to reveal principles of design.

N.B. In NO WAY is this an endorsement of ‘intelligent design’ theories, which have no place in modern discussions of nature. I am simply discussing ideas held by seventeenth century naturalists and antiquarians.

Robert Hooke’s Snowflakes

Many apologies for the long gap between posts! Now that my circumstances have changed, I expect to be able to post more often.

To get things going again I thought I would introduce two of my very favourite ruins, one natural and one artificial, over the course of three posts. In this post I will talk about a drawing of snowflakes by Robert Hooke, objects that Hooke thought to be ruins of once-perfect ice crystals. In the next post I will talk about a ruin that a number of seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and philosophers interpreted in a strangely similar way – Stonehenge. Finally, I’ll put up a third post explaining exactly why I think that Robert Hooke’s attempts to understand snowflakes are so comparable with the attempts of Inigo Jones, Walter Charleton, Isaac Newton and John Aubrey to interpret the meaning of Stonehenge. It might seem at first glance pretty strange to suggest that seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and natural philosophers approached natural and artificial things in very similar ways. But I want to suggest not only that this is exactly what they did, but that by exploring the connections between seventeenth century natural history, architecture and antiquarianism, we can come to understand that natural history at the time was very different to the scientific discipline carried on today in universities.

Robert Hooke’s Snowflakes

In the second volume of the Register Book of the Royal Society, we can find a drawing of snowflakes, made by Robert Hooke, perhaps in December 1662. The description consists of about one folio page of handwritten text, and an image that folds out sideways, a little smaller than a folio page turned on its side:


Photograph of Hooke’s fold-out ink-wash drawing of snowflakes, with inscribed compass and knife marks, in ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

At first glance, Hooke’s image hardly seems worth giving serious attention. These blotchy and impressionistic snowflakes might even be the work of a child, and Hooke saw fit to apologise for them in the text, referring to them as ‘coarse draughts’. Yet, as Matthew Hunter has observed in his wonderful PhD thesis ‘Robert Hooke Fecit: Making and Knowing in Restoration London’, (University of Chicago, 2007), Hooke’s representative strategy was in fact very subtle. He painted each snowflake by laying a dark ink wash over a circle inscribed with a compass and a razor. He divided each circle into six using a straight edge and a razor, as if to construct a hexagon inside the circle.

Close-up detail showing (from the left) the fifth snowflake drawn in the middle row. ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p. 62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

Close-up detail showing (from the left) the fifth snowflake drawn in the middle row. ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p. 62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.

The straight lines cut into the paper to make these divisions seem to have served Hooke as the guides for the arms of his snowflakes. If we refer to Hooke’s verbal description, things get even more interesting. He hardly referred at all to the images that he made with the black ink wash, but rather described the regular, geometrical markings he made with the compass, razor and rule: ‘In which I observ’d that if they were of any regular figures, they were always brancht out, with 6 principall branches’. His only remark on the different sorts of snowflake that he illustrated in ink was that they seemed to follow the same geometric pattern that he had also observed in frozen urine crystals: ‘the branches from each side of the stemms were parallel to the next stem on that side.’ We know from Hooke’s book containing verbal and graphic descriptions of microscopic things, Micrographia (1665), that he thought that snowflakes were ruins. Their more perfect geometric figures had been damaged by the wind during their descent from the clouds. ‘Could we have a sight of them through a Microscope as they are generated in the Clouds before their Figures are vitiated by external incidents’, he wrote, ‘they would exhibit abundance of curiosity and neatness.’

Hooke’s drawing of snowflakes takes into account his belief that they were really the ruins of more perfect forms. He did not describe exactly what one might see. Rather, he picked out features through his razored lines and circles and through his verbal description that gave him clues about a form the snowflakes once had, and about their design, shorn of extraneous details. As Matthew Hunter has also noted, Hooke brought to bear considerable experience of the formation of crystals with six branches. The item immediately preceding Hooke’s account of snowflakes in the Royal Society Register Book is an account of the formation of urine crystals, made under controlled, experimental conditions. This is an order that Hooke preserved in his Micrographia. In a section describing the crystals that form in liquids when frozen, an account of the crystals that form in urine crystals under experimental conditions comes immediately before the discussion of ruined snowflakes. Taken together, the descriptions seem to comprise an assertion that snowflakes would have a form as regular as that found in urine crystals, if only they could be observed before the battering that they receive at the hands of the wind on their way down to earth. Perhaps this justified Hooke’s incision of regular hexagons in the place of the multitude of irregular patterns that he actually admitted to finding.

I would suggest that Hooke felt able to impose the sorts of geometric shapes that he found in urine crystals on to snowflakes because he thought that it was possible to see a ‘design principle’ at work in the urine crystals that must apply to other sorts of crystals. He incised geometrical figures in his ruined snowflakes, comparing those figures with the ones he had found in other, more perfect, frozen crystals to get some sense of their meaning. His description highlights the geometrical qualities he found in these figures, and permits a comparison to other forms, better-known from observations and descriptions made of them in their pristine state. Hooke was much less interested in the forms of snowflakes as he found them than he was in the forms of snowflakes as they must once have been.

In this aim, Hooke had something very important in common with the seventeenth century architects, antiquarians and philosophers who inquired into Stonehenge. They took it for granted that Stonehenge was a ruin, only likely to be interpreted if one could work out what it had once looked like. Possessing almost no sense of prehistory, they thought that they could interpret Stonehenge if they could only work out what it had once looked like. Armed with that knowledge, they could trawl ancient texts for descriptions of similar buildings, or perhaps even find a more perfect, less ruined example of a similar structure. They went about trying to restore the form of Stonehenge using drawings and other techniques that were remarkably similar to those employed by Hooke in his efforts to understand snowflakes. To find out more about this, check out the next post!


I would like to emphasise that much of the writing here would have been impossible, had I not consulted Matthew Hunter’s PhD Thesis, ‘Robert Hooke Fecit: Making and Knowing in Restoration London’, (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Chicago, 2007). Although this blog post develops my own ideas about Hooke’s interpretation of snowflakes, it rests upon the excellent account that Hunter offers, especially his detailed attention to the incisions made in the snowflakes and his discussion of the links between the snowflake drawing and that of the urine crystals. My contribution here will be developed in the next two blog posts, when I discuss my interpretation of Hooke’s work in relation to contemporary discussions of Stonehenge.