Mary Anning was only 12 years old when she and her brother discovered the fossilized skeleton of a 17-foot-long prehistoric ichthyosaurus. Mary went on to become one of the greatest fossil collectors of the 19th century.
Ever since I read Tracy Chevalier’s book, Remarkable Creatures, which is about Mary Anning, I’ve wanted to go to Lyme Regis to follow in her footsteps and find my very own ammonite. Ammonites are the most common fossils in the area and (in my opinion) the prettiest.
Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a small seaside resort town on the south coast of England. The area later became known as the Jurassic coast because of the large number of Jurassic era fossils found there – many of them by Mary.
She began collecting fossils with her father when she very young. They sold them to tourists from a little table outside her father’s woodworking shop and called them curios. Mary took a real interest in them and read everything she could find about fossils, eventually becming an expert.
Mary and her older brother, Joseph, were the only surviving children (out of 10). When Mary was 11 and Joseph 14, their father died and fossil hunting to support the family fell on their shoulders. They walked the beaches every day while their mother ran the house and the shop. Their first big break came about a year after their father died.
Ichthyosaurus – First Big Find
Joseph spotted a 4-foot-long skull of what, at the time, was described as a crocodile. They were sure the body was nearby, and Mary searched for months until she finally found the entire skeleton. While pieces of what we now call an Ichthyosaurus had been found before, this was the first entire skeleton known to, and examined by, the scientific community of London.
When the skeleton was revealed, it was clear that this 17-foot-long creature was not a crocodile. It had paddles instead of feet – and what about that huge, round eye? The scientists claimed that it was a creature that had lived thousands of years ago and no longer existed. This caused quite a stir in religious circles.
Palaeontology vs Religion
At the end of the 18th century, palaeontology and geology were young sciences. Geologists were discovering that layers of rock held different types of fossils, and this led to questions about the age of the earth. In addition, French zoologist and naturalist, Georges Cuvier, had put forth the theory of extinction, stating that some species had died out. This called into question God’s perfect and everlasting creation.
Religious leaders were in a quandary trying to explain the strange fossils being dug out of the cliffs. Some insisted that those animals still existed somewhere in the world, and others thought that God must have created the rocks with the fossils already inside them. Still others were certain the animals were monsters created by the devil. Mary herself was quite religious, but these fossils didn’t seem to diminish her faith at all.
Back to Mary’s (and Joseph’s) Ichthyosaurus…
After Mary had meticulously cleaned the fossil, Henry Hoste Henley bought it for around £23 and sent it to the newly-opened London Museum. It quickly became one of the most popular exhibits. Men of science spent hours debating about what it might have been: Fish? Crocodile? Lizard? Later it was named ichthyosaurus which means fish lizard – but Mary called it an Ichy.
After Mary’s first Ichy, she went on to find several more complete ichthyosauri of various sizes including one that was 20 feet long.
Plesiosaurus – Second Big Discovery: Or is it a fake?
Mary’s next major find came in 1823 when she was 24 years old. She discovered the first ever full skeleton of a creature that shook the palaeontology world. It was 9 feet long, and more than half of that was neck. No one had seen anything like it. The leading palaeontologist, Georges Cuvier, examined a sketch of it and declared that it was probably a fake, and that Mary had most likely put together bones of different creatures to make it. He was certain that no creature had ever had a neck longer than its body and tail together.
What a blow that was to Mary. She took pride in her meticulous methods of collecting and preserving her fossils. His proclamation not only damaged her reputation, it put her family’s welfare at risk. If people thought she was selling fakes, no one would buy from her. Mary stood firm and insisted it was a proper full specimen. Finally, the fossil was taken to the the Geological society of London where the scientists debated its authenticity. It was declared to be original, and Cuvier retracted his statement.
Mary’s Reputation is Saved
The confirmation that Mary was right and the leading palaeontologist was wrong really cemented her reputation. She became a bit of a celebrity and people came to buy her fossils, seek her knowledge, and ask her to help them find specimens. Some say the tongue twister, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore, was inspired by Mary. Although there’s no known evidence of this, it’s a nice idea.
In 1828 at age 29, Mary discovered the fossilized skeleton of a large flying reptile. It was the first pterodactyls to be found outside Germany. In addition to these major discoveries, she found some previously unknown types of fish. And, of course, she still collected and sold the more run-of-the-mill fossils such as ammonites and belemnites.
Interestingly, Mary also pioneered the study of coprolites (or fossilized poo). She was the first to recognize that it was indeed poo by noting that it was sometimes found inside abdomens of the skeletons. They were important because by cracking them open, it could be determined what the animal ate and thus establish the food chain among those critters who swam in the sea so long-ago.
Mary Anning contributed as much as, if not more than, many of the male palaeontologists of the day. And even though her finds ended up in museums or featured in their scientific papers, she was rarely given credit as the discoverer. The Geological society which studied and welcomed her finds didn’t admit women until 1904, many years after her death.
Financial Woes: A little help from her friends
Mary struggled financially her whole life. Her large finds brought in good money, but they were far between, and the sale of her ordinary fossils barely supported her. By 1830 (age 31) she had made the last of her large discoveries – and received the last of her large payments for them. But Mary never gave up walking along the rocks at Lyme Regis looking for long-gone dinosaurs and her next big find.
Many of the scientists who had learned so much from Mary and studied her finds had become friends. They respected her knowledge and experience. Even though they couldn’t admit her into their society (because she was a woman), the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London did grant her a small annuity in appreciation of her contribution to the field.
In addition, her childhood friend, Henry De la Beche painted a watercolour depicting the creatures that Mary had found. He called it Duria Antiquior, a more ancient Dorset, and it was the first representation of prehistoric life based on fossils. He had copies made and sold them at his lectures. He donated the money to Mary.
Her Final Years
Mary never married, and during the last few years of her life she was very ill. She died of breast cancer at age 47 and is buried in St. Michael’s church in Lyme Regis. After her death, a stained-glass window was installed in her honor. It depicts the six acts of mercy and reads, “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”
Today Mary Anning is better known than she was during her lifetime. British school children learn about her, and she’s featured in several children’s books. Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel entitled Remarkable Creatures, is the book that inspired me to go to Lyme Regis to walk in Mary’s footsteps.
In Mary’s Footsteps
So what did I find on the Jurassic Coast? Well, first of all, I found out that it’s very difficult to walk on those big slippery rocks, and I came away with a lot of respect for Mary. I also learned that the best time to go fossil hunting there is January, February, or October – not June. The best fossils are found when it’s stormy and the cliffsides are sliding down onto the shore – but I’m not sure I’d like to be there then.
We took a guided fossil hunting walk organized through the small Lyme Regis Museum https://www.lymeregismuseum.co.uk Our guide was entertaining and showed us what to look for. He was also available to cast an eye over our finds and tell us what they were. Those in our group found mostly small ammonites.
So after a long walk on a very rocky beach and a few insignificant fossils, we went to a fossil shop. And that was where I found my perfect ammonite.
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. A historical fiction novel about the life of famous fossil hunter, Mary Anning.
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