Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxfordshire, first published in 1677, contained descriptions and illustrations of a wide range of Oxfordshire fossils, rocks and minerals. It also included the first known illustration of a dinosaur bone, thought by Plot to be the bone of a giant. A second edition of the book, containing additions by Plot's stepson, John Burman, and an account of the author by his successor, Edward Lhwyd, was published in 1705.
Who was Robert Plot?
Robert Plot was born in December 1640 at the family property of Sutton Barne in Borden, Kent. The son of Robert Plot and Elisabeth Patenden, he was educated at Wye Free School and at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, obtaining a BA in 1661, an MA in 1664, and a BCL and DCL in 1671. By this time Plot had already directed his attention to the systematic study of natural history and antiquities, issuing in 1670 or thereabouts a list of Quaer's to be propounded to the most ingenious of each County in my Travels through England. He began with the county in which he was then living, starting work on The Natural History of Oxfordshire in June 1674; the first edition appeared 3 years later in 1677.
The influence of the book was immediate and far-reaching. Not only was its author ever after referred to as the "learned Dr Plot", but it may well also have confirmed Elias Ashmole in the belief that Oxford was the heaven-appointed place for his collection, and persuaded the University authorities both to accept the collection and to provide a fine building in which to house it. The new museum, sited on Broad Street, was a pioneering institution, comprising the museum display on the upper floor, a School of Natural History at ground level, and a chemical laboratory in the basement. Plot's reward soon followed the completion of the building, for in March 1683 he was appointed both Professor of Chemistry, and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.
Plot was energetic and productive in his double post. His academic duties required his presence periodically in the School of Natural History, where he read "three times a week ... during the time of the chymical course, which continues an entire month, concerning all natural bodies relating to and made use of in chymical preparations, particularly as to the countries and places where they are produced, and found, their natures, their qualities and virtues, their effects, by what marks and characteristicks they are distinguished one from another, natural from artificial, true from sophisticated, with their several mixtures and preparations in trials and experiments" (Gunther, 1925, p. 310).
In the museum, he established the high curatorial standards demanded by Ashmole, including the preparation of manuscript catalogues of much of the collection. He also completed a second book, The Natural History of Staffordshire, which was published in 1686. "The University could hardly have found a more enthusiastic custodian than its first Keeper, for although he seems to have been a man of somewhat unusual character, - Edward Lhwyd, his assistant and successor, credits him with as bad morals as ever characterized a Master of Arts, - yet his energies all turned to the profit of the Museum. The jealous even declared that 'his acquisitiveness was such as to disgust some of his fellow antiquarians'. But he was one who gave ten-fold more than he received, and he had many friends" (Gunther, 1925, p. 320).In 1690, Plot resigned his Oxford posts, giving insufficient stipend as the reason for his retirement. It was his desire, he said, to spend the rest of his life in doing something better than sitting still and doing nothing for nothing. He married Rebecca Burman of London, and retired to his property at Sutton Barne. In the summer of 1695 he began to suffer from urinary calculi. By September he was sufficiently recovered to go on an archaeological tour of east Anglia, but the condition worsened, and he died on 30 April 1696, suffering sufficiently greatly for the fact to be recorded on the plaque erected to his memory in Borden church.
Plot's view of the origin of fossils
In 1677, when Plot published his Natural History of Oxfordshire, controversy about the origin of fossils was at its height. Scientists around the world were debating the great question:
"...whether the Stones we find in the Forms of Shell-fish, be Lapides sui generis, naturally produced by some extraordinary plastic virtue, latent in the Earth or Quarries where they are found? Or, whether they rather owe their Form and Figuration to the Shells of the Fishes they represent, brought to the places where they are now found by a Deluge, Earth-quake, or some other such means, and there being filled with Mud, Clay, and petrifying Juices, have in tract of time been turned into Stones, as we now find them, still retaining the same Shape in the whole, with the same Lineations, Sutures, Eminencies, Cavities, Orifices, Points, that they had whilst they were Shells?" (Plot, 1677, p. 111).
Many ideas were put forward concerning the nature of fossils. While some believed them to be the remains of living organisms, others felt they were more likely to be salt crystals, or the results of 'seeds' of plants and animals that had entered the earth along with the rain, germinated and grown there.
Fossils as crystallizations
Plot rejected the idea that fossil shells had ever been living creatures and suggested that they were actually the crystallizations of mineral salts, their zoomorphic appearance as coincidental as the regular shapes of stalactites or snowflakes:
"That Salts are the principal Ingredients of Stones, I think has so sufficiently been noted already, that to endeavour any further Evidence of the thing, would be actum agere in me, and loss of time to the Reader: And if of Stones in general, much rather sure of Formed Stones, it being the undoubted Prerogative of the Saline Principle to give Bodies their Figure, as well as Solidity and Duration: No other Principle that we yet know of naturally shooting into Figures, each peculiar to their own kind, but Salts; thus Nitre always shoots into Pyramids, Salt Marine into Cubes, Alum into Octo, and Sal Armoniac into Hexaedrums,and other mixt Salts into as mixt Figures" (Plot, 1677, p. 123).
From his work as a chemist, Plot was familiar with the crystallization patterns of a wide range of solutions, and he set about naming salts which could have been responsible for the forms of various fossils, e.g. bivalves:
"The Conchites, Pectinites, and Ostracites, whether transversly striated, or from the Commissures to the Rim, seem to own their Origin to Urinous Salts, which shoot likewise from a Center (as suppose from the Hinges of these Stones) but generally are most extended to one side, as may be seen in the branched Figure formed on the Surface of Urine by freezing, in Mr. Hook's Micrography; whose Striae not obtaining much above the Quadrant of a Circle, whatever other Difference there may be, in this respect at least is agreeable to our Stones " (Plot, 1677, p. 124).
Although similarities between fossils and living organisms could clearly be perceived, it did not, to Plot, necessarily follow that the one had come from the other. According to the neoplatonic school of thought, the whole cosmos is a web of hidden affinities, made visible in the resemblances between Man and his external world, between the heavens and the Earth, and between living and non-living entities. Neoplatonists could therefore attribute organic resemblances to the action of a pervasive moulding force or "plastic virtue" that governed the growth of living organisms, but also operated within the Earth. For Plot, this "plastic virtue" was crystallization, which he felt capable of remarkable feats:
"Come we next to Formed Stones that resemble the parts of Four Footed beasts, whereof we meet of one sort in the Quarries of Heddington, set in the Body of the Stone, the most like to the Head of a Horse of any thing I can think of; having the Ears, and Crest of the Mane appearing between them, the places of the Eyes suitably prominent, and the rest of the Face entire, only the Mouth and Nostrils absent in them all ... These are plentifully enough found, and of divers Sizes, yet not mention'd that I know of by any Author, wherefore I have taken the Boldness to fit them with a Name, and in Imitation of other Authors (in the like Case) shall call them Hippocephaloides" (Plot, 1677, p. 128).
According to the neoplatonists, man was the "microcosm", the epitome of the universe, the reflection in miniature of the structure, variety and purpose of the "macrocosm" outside him. Every feature of the universe around him could therefore be expected to have some analogy, some token or symbol, within his being. It followed that to look for specific remedies for specific ills was no mere empirical hunch but rather an attempt to trace the implications of the fundamental pattern of nature. This idea is also reflected in his book:
"On the Chiltern Hills near Sherbourn, I found a White Flint, with another set in it, in the Form of a Luca Olive . To which may be added the Lapides Judaici of Oxford-shire, which though of a much more slender and longer Figure than any sort of Olive, yet because in other Countries they are found in that Shape . and treated of by Authors amongst stones relating to the Fruits of Trees, I shall not change their place . By Authors they are said to be of different Sexes, the lesser and rounder of the Feminine, and the greater and longer of the Masculine Gender; whereof the former is good against the stone in the Bladder, and the latter against it in the Kidneys, for which reasons they are sometimes by Authors called Eurrhei, and tecolith" (Plot, 1677, p. 126).
True petrified organisms
Not all the fossils known to Plot were explained by the action of a "plastic force". Having described fossils resembling the human brain, eyeball, ear, heart and kidney, he came to an object of particular strangeness:
"Come we next to such [stones] as concern the . Members of the Body: Amongst which, I have one dug out of a quarry in the Parish of Cornwell, and given me by the ingenious Sir Thomas Pennyston, that has exactly the Figure of the lowermost part of the Thigh-Bone of a Man or at least of some other Animal, with capita Femoris inferiora, between which are the anterior . and the large posterior Sinus . : and a little above the Sinus, where it seems to have been broken off, shewing the marrow within of a shining Spar-like Substance of its true Colour and Figure, in the hollow of the Bone ... In Compass near the capita Femoris, just two Foot, and at the top above the Sinus ... about 15 inches: in weight, though representing so short a part of the Thigh-Bone, almost 20 pounds" (Plot, 1677, p. 132).
Plot decided, on the basis of the internal structure, that this specimen was indeed a petrified bone but, given its great size, what animal could it have come from?
According to Plot, some specimens did seem to have a true organic origin. If this large specimen was indeed part of a femur, from which creature did it come?
Nowadays we can identify it as part of the femur of the dinosaur Megalosaurus, but this was not an explanation available to Plot. He wondered whether it (and others like it) might be the bones of elephants brought to Britain during the Roman invasions, but soon realised this could not be the case, and finally settled upon what is, to us, an even more bizarre suggestion:
"There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones . I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not . It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days" (Plot, 1677, p. 137).
Bodleian Library, Department of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts
Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG
Tel: +44 (0)1865 277158
British Library, Department of Manuscripts
96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Tel. +44 (0)20 7412 7513
Sackler (Ashmolean) Library
1 St John Street, Oxford, OX1 2LG
Tel: +44 (0)1865 278087
Bibliography: selected publications
Plot, R. 1674? Quaer's to be propounded to the most ingenious of each County in my Travels through England. Oxford. 3 pp.
Plot, R. 1677. The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an essay towards the Natural History of England. Printed at the Theater, Oxford. 358 pp., 16 pls.
Plot, R. 1679? Enquiries to be propounded to the most Ingenious of each County in my Travels through England and Wales, in order to their History of Nature and Arts. Oxford. 4 pp.
Plot, R. 1685. De Origine Fontium, Tentamen Philosophicum: In praelectione habita coram Societate Philosophica nuper Oxonii instituta ad Scientiam naturalem promovendam. Oxford. 187 pp.
Plot, R. 1686. The Natural History of Stafford-shire. Printed at the Theater, Oxford. 450 pp., 38 pls.
Plot, R. 1695? Enquiries to be Propounded to the most Sincere and Intelligent in the Cities of London and Westminster, in order to their History of Nature, Arts, and Antiquities. London?, 2 pp.
Plot, R. 1695? [Terms for the publication by subscription of The natural history of London and Middlesex]. London?, 1 p.
Plot, R. 1705. The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an essay towards the Natural History of England. 2nd ed., with large additions and corrections: also a short account of the author, &c. Printed by Leon. Lichfield, Oxford. 366 pp., 16 pls.
Plot, R. 1972. The Natural History of Oxford-shire. Facsimile of 2nd ed. P.P.B. Minet, Chicheley. 366 pp., 16 pls.
Plot, R. 1973. The Natural History of Stafford-shire. Reprint of 1st ed. E.J. Morten, Manchester. 460 pp., 64 pls.
Gunther, R.T. 1925. Early Science in Oxford. Vol. III. Part I. The biological sciences. Part II. The biological collections. Printed for the subscribers, Oxford, xii + 564 pp., 60 pls.
Keller, A.G. 1981. Plot, Robert. pp. 40-41. In Gillespie, C.C. (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 11. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, xiii + 618 pp.
Lhwyd, E. 1705. A short Account of the Author. In Plot, R. 1705. The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an essay towards the Natural History of England. 2nd ed., with large additions and corrections: also a short account of the author, &c. Printed by Leon. Lichfield, Oxford. 366 pp., 16 pls.
MacGregor, A. 2001. The Ashmolean Museum: A brief history of the institution and its collections. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford in association with Jonathan Horne publications, London, 80 pp.
Rudwick, M.J.G. 1972. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. MacDonald, London; America Elsevier, New York, 287 pp.
Seccombe, T. 1909. Plot, Robert (1640-1696). pp. 1310-1312. In Lee, S. (ed.) Dictionary of National Biography, 15. Smith, Elder & Co., London, vi + 1352 pp.
Turner, A. 1996. Robert Plot (1640-1696), 1st Keeper of the Ashmolean Musaeum. Sphaera, 4, 4-5.
Learning more articles are free to all users for educational, non-profit purposes.