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William Smith

Notable Local Geologists: Edward Lhuyd

Edward Lhuyd (1660–1709)

Author of Lithophilacii Britannici Ichnographia* & second keeper of the Ashmolean

(*the first catalogue of British fossils)

Professor Michael Winterbottom presents a short biography of Edward Lhuyd, the second keeper of the Ashmolean and local, geologist.


 Lhuyd (1660-1709)—even he did not spell the name consistently—was assistant at the Ashmolean Museum to Robert Plot, whose career is described elsewhere in this website, before succeeding him as Keeper around 1690. It may say as much about Lhuyd as about Plot that he described his elder as ‘a man of as bad morals as ever took a doctor’s degree. I wish his wife a good bargain of him, and myself that I may never meet with his like again’. Plot, however deplorable, was a Renaissance man, but if anything Lhuyd had an even wider range of interests. He was taught chemistry by his superior in the Ashmolean cellars, and he was a naturalist, botanist, geographer and antiquarian into the bargain. Even more astonishingly, he was an expert in the Celtic languages; a special interest was in Cornish, and modern authorities still speak of his work with respect. He was a protégé of Isaac Newton, a correspondent of Joihn Aubrey, and, naturally, a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was appropriate that this unmarried and driven man, who ‘did not suffer fools gladly’, should have died in his room on the lower ground floor of the old Ashmolean in Broad Street. He was barely fifty.



 Lhuyd was born at Loppington in Shropshire in 1660, and, after being fostered over the permeable border in Montgomeryshire, he returned to England to be educated at the grammar school in Oswestry. His aggressively Welsh name does not mislead, for, though born illegitimate, he was connected with Welsh gentry through both his father and his mother. Despite financial difficulties, his father, another Edward, took an active interest in the new science, and was able to send his son to Jesus College, Oxford (1682), where he did not graduate. He presumably attracted Plot’s attention as a promising young man, and the Ashmolean became the centre of his life. To it he bequeathed his fossil collection, which sadly is said to have dwindled to a couple of specimens by the 1940s. Nor did it ever contain two items of particular interest which he had catalogued, one (1328: from Stonesfield) apparently a megalosaurus tooth like those known to Buckland much later, the other, Rutellum implicatum (1352: from near Witney), judged by modern scholars to be ‘surely the tooth of a cetiosaur, the earliest record of any part of a sauropod skeleton’.


These are two items from Lhuyd’s geological magnum opus, his frighteningly titled Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia (1699: the slightly enlarged second edition of 1760 is available in facsimile from Kessinger Publishing’s Legacy Reprints). This, apparently the first systematic catalogue of English fossils, is divided into twelve chapters (Crystalline stones, Coralline stone, etc.); and six ‘letters’ are appended on various subjects, including marine fossils and stones from Germany and Yorkshire. The dedication is to Martin Lister, praised as a supporter of the Ashmolean Library and expert in the fossils of the British Isles. The preface claims that after the discoveries of Lister, Plot and Beaumont, there is need for more work on the subject. Lhuyd will describe fossils most of which he found himself, or was given by friends, and he sets himself to give details of where the various specimens have been found, so that others can follow up his work. The entries number 1766, but there are many duplicates and the total number of fossil species will be much smaller than that.

from a letter to Martin Lister, dated from Oxford, 14 October 1689


The Doctor [Plot] continues his resolution of searching some of the maritim parts of Kent this winter; and has writ for one to supply our absence: I hope we may make some discoveries amoungst formd stones, shells, and the other exanguia aquatica. I shall adde no more, but that I am, Sir, your obliged and humble servant, Edward Lhwyd.


We acknowledge and thank our friends at 

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford.

Shelfmark: MS Lister 35, f. 137r

Some, indeed many, of the names employed are new, and Lhuyd apologises for their unfamiliarity to a Latin ear (the whole book is in Latin); people will get used to them, he says cheerily. In fact, most sound unfamiliar nowadays too, and it is easiest to make correlations between Lhuyd’s list and a modern handbook of fossils by looking at the excellent engravings, collected at the end of the book. It may be of interest to give some idea of where Lhuyd’s specimens came from. Of the 88 entries under Coralline stones, for instance, a couple were from Llandudno, the gift of a fellow of Jesus College. Others came from a handful of other English counties, mostly bordering on ours. But the majority were from Oxfordshire or very nearby. There is much talk of sandpits: one in Oxford, ‘near the academic walks’ (wherever they were); others were at Wolvercote, Faringdon, and Stanton (Harcourt). Quarries are specified at Witney, Bullingdon (see W.J. Arkell, The Geology of Oxford, p. 93), ‘Upton near Burford’; a well near Cumnor, and another, in the chalk, at Aston Rowant; a ‘tumulus’ or ‘hill’ at Islip. At least one fossil was given to Lhuyd by a rustic who did not know where it came from. There is an occasional cross-reference to Plot’s Natural History and its illustrations; Lhuyd’s own illustrations, much better labelled than Plot’s, are grouped together, by chapters, at the end of the book, and there is a decent index. But Lhuyd shows none of the (occasional) interest displayed by Plot in the kind of environment, let alone stratum, in which the fossils had been found; and at least in the catalogue he does not normally describe them at all minutely. It is quite exceptional when he remarks on the juxtaposition of one fossil (1132d) with others of a different kind.


In the other sections of the catalogue the horizon widens, though the emphasis on Oxfordshire, with an astonishing number of quarries and pits, is constant. Fossils from Kent are a particular feature (see the extract from a letter to Lister reproduced here, showing that Lhuyd sometimes hunted in Plot’s company). Most English counties are mentioned, though not, I think, Devon and Cornwall. There is mention of Ireland, the Isle of Man, and even Malta (gifts from John Ray). Of particular interest are the so-called Lithophyta, fossil plants which Lhuyd knew from coalfields in various parts of England and Wales. More exciting still, Lhuyd was the first discoverer of the trilobite. He had announced his discovery to Martin Lister in 1698 (‘the sceleton of some Flat-Fish’) and first published it in 1698. Richard Fortey tells us this part of the story (Trilobite!, pp. 24, 43-4), and identifies the creature as Ogygiocarella debuchi. But there is more to be said. The fossil is pictured in the Ichnographia (Table XXII). It does not appear in the catalogue itself, but in Epistle I (p. 97) we are told how ‘we found’ it and several like it in a quarry at Newton House (owned by the Rhys family) ‘near the town of Sanctus Teilavus’ [Llandeilo] in the county of Carmarthen (google ‘Dinefwr Park’). Lhuyd says that ‘we called it Trinucleum fimbriatum vulgare.’ This is a real advance on ‘Flat-Fish’, and ‘Trinucleus fimbriatus’ is still (as Professor Fortey kindly informs me) the name for the type species. Lhuyd, then, was not merely the first person to find a trilobite: he also gave an enduring Latin name to his discovery.  


The Catalogue gives much incidental information. Several of Lhuyd’s friends appear. We learn that a certain bivalve (664) was familiar to children in Middle England as ‘bundy’ or ‘pundy’ (not known to the Oxford English Dictionary). The spelling of local place names is sometimes intriguing: Basie’s Leigh (Besselsleigh), Hinxey (Hinksey) , Kirklington (Kirtlington), Tousey (Towersey).


All this was the fruit of his extensive travels. Like Plot, he was interested in everything, and one of his monuments is the first volume of Archaeologia Britannica, published in Oxford in 1707, the year he died. The title page, with its fine engraving of the Sheldonian (‘printed at the THEATER’), says that it gives ‘some account of the Languages, Histories and Customs of Great Britain, from Collections and Observations in Travels through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne [Brittany], Ireland and Scotland’. This volume, the only one to appear, is entitled, merely, ‘Glossography’ and concerns the Celtic languages. Well before this, indeed, in 1695, he had made a notable contribution on the Welsh counties to Edmund Gibson’s revision of William Camden’s famous Britannia (1586).


The Keeper of the Ashmolean clearly gave himself ample research leave. He raised money, as keepers do, but ‘to enable me to travel, for there’s no good to be done without repeated observations’. He was critical of ‘upstarts who never as much as stooped in a gravel pit’. For him mountains were there to be climbed as well as collected from: and plants from the Welsh hills were reared in the Oxford Botanical Garden (founded 1621).


Unlike Robert Plot, Edward Lhuyd does not merit a mention in modern books on the geology of Oxfordshire. Perhaps he lives on most happily in the Latin name of the Snowdon Lily (aka. Common alplily, Mountain spiderwort), Loidia serotina, which grows in the high hills of the world but in Britain only in Snowdonia. But it is poignant to learn that this is thought to be the first plant that will become extinct in Britain as a result of global warming. Somehow this is typical of a man whose manuscripts and collections were largely lost, who lies in an unmarked grave in St Michael’s Church, and who has not, perhaps, quite been accorded the fame he deserves.

Portrait: Edward Lhwyd, from the 'Book of Benefactors'

(© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; source of image: Picture Library, Ashmolean Museum)

Wallpaper image:  Snowdon Lily Loidia serotina

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