Sir Thomas Spencer's Chinese Seal

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Dr Robert Plot (1640-1696), first 'Custos' of the Ashmolean Museum and the man who installed Elias Ashmole's collections at Oxford University, was one of the most noted antiquaries of the 17th century and 'the genial father of County Natural Histories in Britain' (Gunther 1939: 333-56). In 1674 he persuaded the University authorities to testify that he 'being studious to make search after the rarities both of Nature and Arts afforded in the Kingdome for the Information of the Curious' they 'approve of that his ingenious undertaking' (Gunther 1939: 345-6; see also Mendyk 1989: 193-205). The Natural History of Oxford-shire (1677) and The Natural History of Stafford-shire (1686) were the outcome of this research: in each he dealt with natural history first, proceeding from landscape to plants, animals and people, and ending with arts (i.e. crafts) and antiquities. At the end of this final chapter in the Oxfordshire volume, Plot described in three paragraphs, numbered 138-140 (1677: 356-7), two oddities which he considered recent compared with the prehistoric to medieval monuments that occupied the bulk of his section on antiquities (original spelling has been preserved, but italicization of English words removed):

138. There are some other Antiquities of yet later date, that I have met with in Oxford-shire also perhaps worthy notice, such as that odd bearded Dart, Tab. 16. Fig. 7. having the beards issuing from it, not as usually one against another, but one lower and the other higher . . . the stem of it being wood, and not very hard neither, I cannot afford for it to be above 200 years standing, or thereabout: Nor can I add more concerning it, but that it was found somewhere about Steeple Barton, and given me by the Worshipful Edward Sheldon Esq;

139. Yet the stone engraven Tab. 16 Fig. 8 dug up in the garden, and now in the possession of the Right Worshipful Sir Thomas Spencer Baronet, a most cordial Encourager of this undertaking, can scarce be allowed so ancient as that, the Character upon it in Rilieve work being certainly China: For unless we may imagine it brought thence in the days of King AElfred, by Swithelin Bishop of Sherbourn, Qui detulit ad Sanctum Thomam in India Eleemosynae Regis Aluredi, & incolumis rediit, i.e. who carryed the offerings of King Alfred to the Church of Thomas in India, and returned safe, we can by no means allow it to have been here, 180 years; that Country having been quite lost again to this Western part of the world, till Vasquez Gomez was sent by Emanuel King of Portugal to make new discoveries, in the year 1497. In which year, though he recovered the way again to the East Indies, yet Fernandus Andradius discover'd not China till 1517; so that provided this stone (which is very unlikely) were brought thence by some of Andradius his company the very first voyage, yet it can be (with us) but 160 years standing.

140. As for the Stone it self. it is of an odd kind of texture, and colour too, not unlike (to sight) to some sort of cheese, exactly of the figure and bigness as engraven in the Table; and most likely of any thing to have been one of their Togru's, or Stamps, wherein the chief persons of the Eastern Countries usually had their names cut in a larger sort of Character, to put them to any instruments at once, without further trouble. That they have such kind of stamps, is clearly testified by Alvares Semedo, in his History of China: They Print, says he, likewise with Tables of stone, but this manner of Printing serves only for Epitaphs, Trees, Mountains, &c. of which kind they have very many Prints; the stones which serve for this use being also of a proper and peculiar sort, as ours seems to be: So that in all probability the letters on this stone contain only the name, and perhaps the office, or other title of some person of Quality, and therefore hard to be found out; and that it was brought hither by some Traveller of the Honorable Family of the Spencers, and either casually lost, or carelessly thrown out as a thing of no value. …