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Mary Anning and the primeval monsters


It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale - the story of a poor cabinet-maker’s young daughter who discovered an important and massive fossil at Lyme Regis, Dorset. Mary Anning (1799-1847) unearthed the first complete fossilised skeleton of a ‘fish lizard’ or Ichthyosaurus, when she was about 12 years old. However, Mary’s life was no fairy tale, but a struggle against near-impossible odds, although the mystery surrounding some of her life does imbue her story with a certain mythical quality. 

In Lyme Regis Mary’s future path was set when she was still a girl, and she followed it throughout her life, finding a sequence of some of the earliest palaeontological specimens in the world. For Lyme is situated on an exceptionally fossiliferous coastline, where fossils - the remains or traces of animals and plants preserved by natural processes - were, and still are, to be found in abundance, and often of enormous size. But at that time few people knew what these strange bones and objects were or how they had come to be there. In her twenties Mary discovered the first complete British Plesiosaurus giganteus (1823/4), which became the type specimen (that is, it set the definitions for its category for future reference in identifying further finds). She then found the first British example of the strange winged pterosaur, named Pteradactylus macronyx (1828) (renamed Dimorphodon macronyx), and then the new species Plesiosaurus macrocephalus (1828). That was followed by a strange new genus of fossil fish, Squaloraja (1829), another type specimen. There was much more. She was among the first to realise that the small fossils named coprolites found in abundance on the foreshore were actually the fossilised faeces of prehistoric ‘monsters’.

The huge marine ‘lizards’ were contemporary with dinosaurs, although some of this story happened before dinosaurs were found, identified as such and so named. Those professionals who study fossil animals and plants, the palaeontologists, have documented the finds, and it is for such scholars to analyse and explain the specimens in detail. While I am drawn to the diversity and beauty of the geological features of our planet, my interest in Mary Anning is as a woman: an exceptional woman, trapped in the stratified society of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Her achievements were remarkable by any standards, but especially so because she was born and bred in lowly circumstances from which there was little chance of escape. Mary was lower class, female, uneducated, unmarried and a dissenter - one who did not belong to the established Church of England. Lyme Regis was a remote place, its inhabitants socially hampered by the barrier of a strong Dorset accent. This impoverished spinster had to earn her own living, and it was to be in an unusual - and dangerous - way: by finding, excavating and then selling fossils both to casual seaside visitors and to important collectors and museums in Britain and Europe. Any one of her ‘handicaps’ could have been enough to scupper her chances; however, even though she was not properly recognised - as a socially well-placed man would have been - she did succeed to a large degree.

In spite of every disadvantage, Mary’s curiosity, intelligence and industry shone through to such an extent that her story is inexorably welded to the history of fossils found around Lyme Regis, mainly, although not exclusively, of the Jurassic Period, 200 to 145 million years ago. Researching her discoveries was vital to my understanding of Mary; learning something of her subject and giving rein to my interest helped me to appreciate what fired her enthusiasm and determination. I hope the information gathered here to tell her story will similarly inspire the reader to look further, in acknowledgement of her great accomplishments.

Mary Anning was generous in sharing her hands-on knowledge gained from everyday experience on the foreshore with the eminent gentlemen scholars who came to visit her. Inevitably, they were not always so generous in giving her the credit she deserved, and she became somewhat bitter as they took freely of her work, discoveries and ideas and presented them as their own, seemingly without a second thought, while she continued to live a hard life all her days.

As a child, my box of treasures already contained a Native American Indian arrowhead I had picked up in a freshly ploughed field, a small chip of ‘1,000-year-old’ Pueblo pottery purchased at a museum with funds from my piggy-bank, and the minute nest of a humming-bird. To add to my collection of oddities, on the foreshore of Lake Ontario I found a stone with what looked like a shell in it. I now know it to be an impression of a common Pecten shell. I showed the fossil to my father, who was building a stone fireplace. The 6-year-old girl was thrilled when he promptly put it in pride of place above the keystone, where it has remained ever since.

What draws us to fossils? Perhaps it is the jewel-like quality of, say, an ammonite, or perhaps the intriguing orderliness and stark exposition of the skeletal organisation of animals, huge or tiny. Even a child senses that fossils, with the intricate beauty of nature’s symmetry, are gifts from another world. And who can resist a science that casts up evocative words like ‘coeval’, ‘antediluvian’, ‘primeval’ and ‘primordial’? Or a science that reveals the previously unknown, spectacularly enormous, terrifying and once-living creatures, some the stuff of nightmares?

Mary Anning can be listed among those extraordinary Englishwomen who have defied the constraints of their time and place - women like writer Freya Stark (1893- 1993), a Victorian who travelled adventurously by camel in Arabia, or naturalist Marianne North (1830-90), who fearlessly explored the wilderness areas of every continent in the late nineteenth century, painting hundreds of native flora. Mary was unique, but she was also an example of the indomitable amateur who gets on and makes things happen, a type of person still occasionally encountered. In Mary Anning’s case, the ‘amateur’ soon became the consummate professional.  

By Patricia Pierce

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