This article is from
Journal of Creation 36(3):19–20, December 2022

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William Stukeley, and an early 18th century plesiosaur


Attributed Richard Collins, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1. Portrait of William Stukeley, by Richard Collins (c. 1728/1729), located Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House.

William Stukeley (or Stukely) (1687–1765) was born in Lincolnshire, trained as a doctor, then as an Anglican cleric, and became a keen and accomplished archaeologist (figure 1). He is sometimes considered the father of archaeology and was also committed to defending the biblical account of creation and the Flood in the early 18th century. He was opposed to both deists and atheists through his studies and research. He rose to become a member of the Royal Society, where he was acquainted with Sir Isaac Newton, and was the first secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London (from 1718). It was in fact Stukeley’s memory that recorded Newton’s anecdote about a falling apple and the theory of gravity.1

From 1703 he had a broad education at Cambridge University, which included ethics, divinity, classics, mathematics, and philosophy. Spare time involved collecting Roman coins, fossils, and other artefacts. Then greater focus was placed on medicine in 1709, training at St Thomas hospital in London, before starting a practice in the Lincolnshire town of Boston less than a year later. Through travels around Britain between 1710 and 1725, he visited various Roman sites, and earlier Celtic ones, which he ascribed to the Druids. He described the sites though a series of notebooks, including the stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge. Some of this was written up in such works as Itinerarium Curiosum in 1724.

Financial struggles may have played a part in his desire to redirect his vocation to that of an Anglican cleric, gaining ordination in 1729 with the help of his friend, Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake. He later stated that it was for the purpose of challenging deism; to “combat the deists from an unexpected quarter”,2 and responded to Wake that he saw his duty to counter the “profaneness and infidelity that prevails so much at present, and threatens an utter subversion of religion in general.”3 Wake saw in Stukeley a useful ally in the struggle to uphold the orthodox faith.4 Deists tended to be sceptical of scriptural revelation, and believed it possible to know God through reason and scientific evidence alone—i.e. through the design argument. Within deism, there was a move to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, and deity of Christ, which led to the growth of Unitarian churches.5

Despite his commitment to orthodoxy, Stukeley was very much influenced by Newton, and perhaps overlooked Newton’s own Arianism.6 Newton had believed that in his work he was only rediscovering a more ancient knowledge, and this inspired Stukeley to look for evidence of that knowledge among the early Britons. However, Stukeley saw that ancient knowledge through the eyes of trinitarian faith; the Druids, he thought, were already proto-Christians and believers in the Trinity when the first evangelists came to the British Isles.7

Stukeley’s ‘crocodile’

Open Access / Public Domainfig2-drawing-fossil-plesiosaur
Figure 2. Drawing of the fossil plesiosaur by William Stukeley 1719. The slab of rock was 3 feet long and 2 feet 2 inches wide (approx. 0.9 m × 0.7 m).9

In late 1718 Robert Darwin of Elston (Charles Darwin’s great grandfather) obtained a limestone slab, which contained a significant fossil (figure 2). The rock, a blue/grey Jurassic limestone, was thought to have been sourced from a quarry near Fulbeck, in Lincolnshire. This is the same Liassic layer that runs northeast from West Dorset, across the Cotswolds and English Midlands, to Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Subsequently, this limestone slab was used as the platform for a well by Rev. John South, located at the Rectory in Elston, near Newark, Nottinghamshire.

The fossil was brought before the Royal Society on 11 December 1718. A meeting, chaired by Newton, was arranged in early 1719 for a formal discussion. Robert Darwin had thought it was a human skeleton, but the members, including Stukeley, considered it to be of marine origin. Stukeley wrote that it was a considerable rarity, “the like whereof has not been observ’d before in this island”, and that it was either a “Crocodile or Porpoise”—at this time the plesiosaur was unknown to science (figure 3).8,9 A crocodile fossil had previously been found in Germany and a copy of the report made available to the Royal Society, which was used by Stukeley to support his claims about this latest find. It was some one hundred years later, in 1823, when Mary Anning found a near complete plesiosaur in the Jurassic layers around Lyme Regis, Dorset. Her find was described by William Conybeare in 1824,10 and this helped scientists clarify the earlier find from Lincolnshire (it is now in the Natural History Museum in London as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus (R1330)).

Image: Dmitry Bogdanov / CC BY 3.0 Drawing of the fossil plesiosaur 
 Figure 3. Drawing of the fossil plesiosaur

The incomplete find, from the Lincolnshire quarry, was carefully described by Stukeley: said to contain 16 vertebrae with intermediate cartilage, nine ribs, whole or in part from the left side, an ileum and os sacrum, and two displaced thigh bones. Several other bones were present from the right forelimb, which he described as part of a foot with several toes present. The fossil he considered to have been buried with the Noahic Flood. He wrote:

“… and so great a Confirmation of what I had the Honour to present to the Royal Society, in a late Discourse, where I hinted at a Solution of some obvious and remarkable Phaenomena, in the external Face of the Globe, consequent to its Formation, as set forth in the Mosaic Account; and of some Changes it suffer’d at the universal Cataclysm, and Proofs of that great Catastrophe of the animal and vegetable World in Plants, Shells and Parts of living Creatures found in Rocks and Quarries.”9

Stukeley believed the find had become encased in the hard rock as a result of the events of the Flood, with the limestone hardening after burial. He commented further on the recessional aspect of the Deluge, with water draining into the North Sea, which trapped the animals along the line of the Lincolnshire hills. The work of fossilisation was discussed with processes known in the early 18th century.


This description is noteworthy in that it shows that leading members of the British Royal Society at this time upheld the biblical Flood and were willing to use it for the purposes of scientific explanations. This was at a time when there was pressure from deists and atheists. For example, one leading French academic, Bernard de Fontenelle, the secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, was undermining belief in the biblical Flood through his position.11 However, through such men as Stukeley, the Royal Society continued to take the Noahic event seriously, and there was a desire to uphold the Protestant Christian faith in Britain among the Anglican clergy.

Modern creation scientists and Flood geologists follow in the footsteps of such notable members of the early Royal Society as William Stukeley, allowing Scripture to inform science about the origin of the fossil record. This evidence further shows the weakness of claims that creation science is an endeavour that only began in the early 20th century.

Posted on homepage: 23 February 2024

References and notes

  1. Haycock, D.B., William Stukeley: Science, religion and archaeology in eighteenth century England, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, p. 3, 2002. Return to text.
  2. Correspondence from Stukeley to Roger Gale, 25 Jun 1730, in Haycock, ref 1. p. 12. The ‘unexpected quarter’ has been variously identified as William Whiston, or John Toland, according to Haycock. Return to text.
  3. Piggott, S., William Stukeley: An eighteenth-century antiquary, 2nd edn, Thames & Hudson, London, p. 98, 1985. Return to text.
  4. Piggott, ref. 3, p. 97. Return to text.
  5. Doyle, S., Deism and divine revelation, 7 Sep 2017; Cox, G. and Sibley, A., The inhuman nature of secular humanism, 24 Jun 2021. Return to text.
  6. Ricquebourg, M., Isaac Newton—friend or foe to biblical creation? J. Creation 34(3):122–128, 2020; Hughes, M., Newton, Hermes and Berkeley, The British J. Philosophy of Science 43(1):1–19, 1992. Return to text.
  7. Haycock, ref. 1, p. 11. Return to text.
  8. Fortey, N., William Stukely, Robert Darwin and the Elston Crocodile: A remarkable discovery in 1718, bottesfordhistory.org.uk, 2007. Return to text.
  9. Stukely, W., An account of the impression of the almost entire sceleton of a large animal in a very hard stone, lately presented the Royal Society, from Nottinghamshire, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 30:963–968, 1719. Return to text.
  10. Conybeare, W.D., On the discovery of an almost perfect skeleton of the Plesiosaurus, Trans. Geol. Soc. London 2:382–389, 1824. Return to text.
  11. Sibley, A., Deep time in 18th-century France—part 1: a developing belief, J. Creation 33(1): 85–92, 2019. Return to text.