Plenty of dinosaur enthusiasts know that the first formal description of what would later be identified as a dinosaur fossil came in 1824: William Buckland's Notice on the Megalosaurus. Fewer people realize, however, that the first known illustration of what was probably a dinosaur bone — maybe also a Megalosaurus — was published a century and a half earlier. The man responsible for the first dinosaur bone depiction was an English naturalist named Robert Plot.
Born in 1640, Plot was his father's only son, and lucky enough to enjoy a good education, studying at the Free School at Wye in Kent and then Magdalen Hall in Oxford, where he earned a bachelor's, master's, and civil law degree. He entered University College, Oxford, as a commoner, but soon became quite successful. Oxford's Ashmolean Museum (upper floor), School of Natural History (ground floor) and chemistry lab (basement) all inhabited the same building, and Plot oversaw all three. He was Oxford's first professor of chemistry and the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Practicing alchemy for a profit, he claimed to find the secret of "first matter," the holy grail of alchemy. In 1690, Plot resigned his post, got married, and retired to live the life of a leisured country gentleman.
One of the many projects Plot undertook in his productive career was documenting the natural history of Oxfordshire and, later, Staffordshire. What "natural history" meant was still being worked out in the late 17th century. For that matter, so was the meaning of "fossil." Prior to that time, natural historians often cast their nets very wide, writing about the natural history of vast territories, if not the whole world. Plot instead undertook a detailed study of a single county. His natural history entailed mapping his areas of interest, including enough detail to determine who owned which property. He developed some useful mapping conventions in the process. But he went further than mere mapping, describing natural phenomena — and unnatural phenomena, too. Chapter headings in his natural histories included "Of the Heavens and Air," "Of the Waters," "Of the Earths," "Of Stones," "Of Formed Stones," "Of Plants," "Of Brutes," "Of Men and Women" and "Of Arts and Of Antiquities."
Plot noticed that different things bore strange resemblances to each other. What he referred to as "formed stones" were especially prone to resemble animals or human body parts. One page of his treatise included formed stones resembling a human brain, olfactory nerve, eye, ear, and breast. Despite the resemblances, Plot didn't always believe (or even often believe) that what his contemporaries called fossils were the remains of once-living organisms. Instead, he held to another interpretation common at the time: A creative force in the Earth made objects that looked like living things. About one strange little rock that looked like it had eyes, he wrote:
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.
Plot explained the existence of these odd stones fairly simply: They were part of God's grand design, and intended for the education and admiration of humans.
But Plot didn't interpret all fossils as nature's artwork. He apparently recognized that some fossils were endocasts of shells, and he attributed the deposition of some shells not to Noah's flood, but to floods that struck Britain later, or perhaps earthquakes. And one fossil he confidently explained as the remains of a once-living organism, entirely consistent with the modern definition of a fossil.
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 . . .
The bone in question was huge. It certainly looked like part of a human femur, but no human could be that big. To deduce the original owner, Plot examined the possibility that the bone had belonged to an elephant from the time of the ancient Romans. For a variety of reasons, concluded that no pachyderm left behind part of its femur in Oxfordshire. He cited the lack of historical evidence, and the inherent difficulty in transporting such an "unwieldy" animal from the Mediterranean to the British Isles. His logic was impressive.
Plot then concluded that the bone must have belonged to a giant.
To support his gigantic interpretation, he cited plenty of examples: Goliath, Pusio and Secundilla (two giants described by Pliny), a supersized Tartar supposedly slain in the 16th century "whose fore-head was 24 inches broad." His evidence also extended to exotic locales:
Yet if we look abroad amongst the present barbarous Nations of both Indies, where they live still according to Nature, and do not debauch her with the sensual Delights of the more civilized World, we shall find (if the Relations either of English or Hollanders be of any credit) that there are now men and women adequate to [giants] in stature; several having been seen, especially about the Straights of Magellan, often; and one near the River of Plate by Tho. Turner, 12 foot high.
Plot's dinosaur-bone-bearing Natural History of Oxfordshire was printed in 1676 or 1677 (accounts vary). Almost a century later, another English historian, Richard Brookes, copied the figure and gave it a name highlighting its resemblance to a piece of manly anatomy. Historians in the throes of arrested adolescence have ever since snickered that the first known illustration of a dinosaur bone bears a salacious name. As for the bone itself, it was long ago lost, as were Plot's other formed stones.
While formed stones brought this early natural historian enjoyment and mental challenges, a different kind of stone brought him illness and perhaps even death. What may have been a kidney stone caused Plot's final, fatal illness, and he died in 1696.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated September 28, 2017