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PLOT, ROBERT (b. Borden, Kent, England,
13 December 1640; d. Borden, 30 April 1696), natural
history, archaeology, chemistry.
of East Anglia. The disease returned, however, and he
died of it in April 1696.
Plot's stress on the unusual and anomalous, and his
expectation that more can be learned from exceptions
than from the general rule, apparently stemmed from
his interpretation of the Baconian inheritance; this
approach gives his natural histories a rather bizarre
and curious flavor--his zoology tends to be teratology.
He started with the heavens--curious meteorological
phenomena observed in the county--then its airs
(acoustic researches into sites famous for their echoes),
waters--especially mineral and medicinal--and earths.
The phenomena of erosion, which he called “deterration,”
are discussed. He had some notion of
stratigraphy, observing that “the Earth is here
[Shotover Hill], as at most other places, I think I may
say of a bulbous nature, several folds of diverse colour
and consistencies still including one another,” and
listed those observed at localities where their disposition
was of economic interest.
Plot also made an extensive study of “formed
stones” or fossils, without appreciating that they could
be used to identify strata. The controversy on the
origin of fossils was then at its height. Plot argued,
from the differences between fossil shells and any
known specimens of the living shellfish they were
thought to represent, that fossil shells were crystallizations
of mineral salts; their zoomorphic appearance
was as coincidental as the regular shapes of stalactites
or snowflakes. Large quadruped fossils he considered
the remains of giants, except for one identified as that
of an elephant through comparison with an e
skull in the Ashmolean Museum.
In 1684 Plot produced a treatise on the origin of
springs; the bulk of it was reprinted in the natural
history of Staffordshire. Here he marshaled evidence,
from his own observations and from contemporary
geographers, purporting to show that it is quantitatively
impossible for all springs to be supplied entirely from
rainfall, so that most must come through underground
channels from the sea. In investigating such wonders
as fairy rings or rains of frogs he tried to offer
In archaeology Plot failed to allow enough for
pre-Roman structures: he usually ascribed barrows
and henges to Saxons or Danes. One of his main
objectives was to describe local crafts and farming
techniques, in the hope of diffusing successful practices
or new inventions throughout the country. Thus
technological information is scattered through both
his works on natural history, providing useful evidence
on contemporary agriculture, mines, and such industries
as the Staffordshire potteries. Whatever the
shortcomings of Plot's works, in their time they
fulfilled a need. Plot had many imitators, for the books
proved to be a useful means of assembling data on the
distribution of rocks, fossils, minerals, flora, and
I. ORIGINAL WORKS.
Plot's books are The Natural
History of Oxfordshire (Oxford, 1677); De origine fontium
(Oxford, 1684); and The Natural History of Staffordshire
(Oxford, 1686). Papers on various curiosities of nature
were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the
Royal Society, esp. 12-20 (1682-1686).
II. SECONDARY LITERATURE.
R. T. Gunther, Early
Science in Oxford, XII, Dr. Plot and the Correspondence
of the Philosophical Society of Oxford (Oxford, 1939);
E. Lhwyd, “A Short Account of the Author,” prefixed
to Natural History of Oxfordshire, 2nd ed. (London, 1705);
Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, P. Bliss, ed.,
IV (London, 1820), 772-776; and see also F. Sherwood
Taylor, “Alchemical Papers of Robert Plot,” in Ambix,