Mary Anning’s Marvellous Marine Fossils
Brugh Jenkins excavates the forgotten history of Mary Anning and her prehistoric discoveries
Lyme Regis is a little town in Dorset that attracts visitors as a quaint English village scene. There are more than a few pleasant spots there, and the coastline is the jewel. Lyme (as it’s commonly known) was the birthplace of a woman of seemingly little consequence by the name of Mary Anning. She had no extraordinary education (probably none at all) and no family fortune and she found her calling, somewhat surprisingly, in fossil research and palaeontology. She would spend time down by the cliffs of the channel, and by the age of thirteen (or twelve, or eleven, depending on who you ask), she had already discovered (embedded in the cliffs) a 17ft sea monster that would later be known as the Ichthyosaurus.
She had already discovered […] a 17ft sea monster that would later be known as the Ichthyosaurus
This was only the beginning. With her faithful terrier, Tray, Anning spent the next thirty-five years gathering fossils and selling them to visitors (it is widely believed that she inspired the tongue-twister ‘she sells sea shells on the sea shore’). These included the first Plesiosaurus fossil, and one of the earliest and best Pterodactyls ever discovered.
Anning’s patient fossil-hunting was a great talent, and she used it remarkably well. She spent her life in impossible conditions with the most basic tools carving out a large chunk of human knowledge to do with ancient marine biology. She spent 10 years on the plesiosaur alone. Without training, she is reported to have excavated, sketched and described with sufficient skill to satisfy the geological community.
She spent 10 years on the plesiosaur alone
However, considerable finds were not under every rock-face. For many reasons (some tragic), Anning was rarely comfortable, and hardly rewarded for her work. The ancient marine life section of the Natural History Museum has her to thank for many of their best specimens, yet she spent most of her life in considerable poverty. Tray, the black and white terrier, died in a landslide that barely missed Anning herself, and she never truly got over it and later, she found she had breast cancer.
She never won significant any accolades or prizes, but she had many friends in the geological and paleontological circles. These friends spoke very highly of her, and she attained honour that many would’ve withheld from a woman. Henry De la Beche, the then president of the Geological Society, wrote a heartfelt eulogy which he read to the society and had published – the first such eulogy for a woman.
Despite Anning having died in 1847 and slipped into obscurity, it’s important to realise that it’s never too late to appreciate.