Mary Anning was born on 21 May, 1799, in the unassuming seaside town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, in the south of England. Her family was poor; and, like other poor families, did what it had to do to survive. Luckily, fate had littered that part of the Dorset coast with a natural treasure, which the whims of fashion had turned into a modest source of income.
Mary Anning, like her neighbours, collected fossils on the beach to earn a penny or two for her family's sustenance. Unlike her neighbours, however, she became uncommonly good at it. And, despite her humble origins, Mary Anning went on to become a pioneer, as the cottage industry of fossil hunting evolved into the new science of palaeontology.
Manna from the Sea
The town of Lyme Regis is unremarkable, as it was when Mary walked its shore. What makes the location remarkable is how it was some 200 million years ago... It was at the bottom of an ocean.
In this ocean swam belemnites, creatures similar to modern squid or cuttlefish; ammonites, relatives of the modern nautilus; ichthyosaurs, 'fish lizards' which superficially resembled a cross between a dolphin and a crocodile; plesiosaurs, long-necked marine animals fitting the popular description of the Loch Ness Monster; and dozens of species of fish. The area remained an ocean throughout the Jurassic period1, during which countless dramas of starvation, birth, and death were played out. Most of the creatures living in the Jurassic seas ended up on the sea floor.
It has been estimated that 0.1 per cent of all living things undergo the fossilization process. This figure is only a rule of thumb, because we only know about the creatures which are preserved in the fossil record, so we can only guess at the number of creatures that have existed on the planet. Nevertheless, it can be used to illustrate that the oceans of the Jurassic period must have been full of life. On the Dorset coast alone, fossils can be found in profusion almost everywhere.
There are areas of the coast around Lyme which are referred to as 'ammonite pavements'. These take the form of fossilized beach - imagine rippled sand, turned to stone - with large ammonites laid edge to edge for up to 50 feet at a stretch. Ammonites of all different sizes and shapes can be found there, some of the most delightful are also the smallest, many of which have been turned into iron pyrites... 'fool's gold'.
Mary Anning's Childhood
At the age of one, Mary Anning was struck by lightning during a visit to a fair. The incident left her nurse and two other women dead. Although she recovered fully, it was a tremendous shock to her mother - as you might expect - who had already lost another daughter named Mary a year and a half before. Interestingly, it was remarked at the time that Mary had been a dull child before being struck; and afterwards, she was lively and bright. (This entry, however, does not espouse the use of lightning therapy for readers with particularly dull children.)
The demise of the first Mary had been a grievous blow to the family; the poor mite had been trying to warm herself by an open fire, when her clothing caught alight and she was burned to death. The Annings had once been a large family. The parents, Richard and Molly, produced nine children altogether. Of these, only Mary and Joseph survived the ravages of the era: smallpox, pneumonia, measles, and malnutrition.
Mary's father, a cabinet maker, attempted to supplement his meagre income by collecting fossils (or 'curios') from the beaches below the cliffs. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe had forced the British gentry to summer at home; and Lyme Regis became a popular resort. The fossil curios were suddenly an indispensable gift for those at home. Local residents were quick to set up stalls laden with fossils outside their dwellings. Ammonites were sold as snake charms (sometimes with eyes painted on); and vertebrae were sold as 'verteberries'. It is unclear whether this colloquialism was a play on words, or a west country pronunciation of 'vertebrae'.
Compounding the family's misfortunes, Richard Anning fell to his death in 1810, aged 44. He apparently lost his footing, and fell from a local promontory, Black Ven, to be dashed against the beach below.
Mary Anning - Palaeontologist
Contrary to the popular myth, it was not Mary who first located the ichthyosaur that would bring her fame, but her brother, Joseph. Coincidentally, he found the skull of the ichthyosaur in 1811, below Black Ven. Mary uncovered the rest of the fossil sometime later. Considering that this was the beach on which their father lost his life, it is perhaps not such a coincidence, as they may have been visiting the spot a year after his fall for memorial purposes.
Ichthyosaurs were not unknown before the discovery, but they were unnamed. They were initially thought to be the remains of an unknown crocodilian. This fossil, however, comprised the first recorded complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur. A local lord purchased the find, which enabled the Annings to live in relative comfort for a half a year or so.
Throughout her life, Mary continued to comb the beach for curios, and her collection soon became unrivalled... if occasionally diminished by visitors. She is credited with finding the first almost complete plesiosaur; the first British pterodactyl; and the first squaloraja, a transitional fish, somewhere between sharks and rays.
Her method for staying ahead of the competition was to dash out into the teeth of a gale, and collect what she could before the waves washed the valuable items away. The cliffs at Lyme are quite friable, and a good rainstorm is all that is required to precipitate a minor landslide, exposing new fossils.
Visits from prominent men of science were frequent; and she quickly built up a vocabulary sufficient to question and query the ideas of her academic callers. Given that she received little or no formal education, this is a good indication of her sharpness of mind.
Although she remained relatively poor, this didn't stop her from helping those who were worse off still. There were many occupants of Lyme who frequently dipped below the bread line and subsequently received her help. Eventually, she managed to raise enough cash to open a little shop. Although this did not signal a great change in her fortunes, she was at least able to store her finds away from home.
Mary continued to run the gauntlet of high-tides and cliff-falls until breast cancer got the better of her. When Mary could no longer spare the energy to go fossil hunting, one of her gentleman friends, the famous William Buckland, author of the monumental Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield (1824), organized a pension for her, so she could at least live out the rest of her years without the worry of starvation, or the embarrassment of having to fall upon the charity of an alms house. She died in Lyme Regis on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 49.
The Ideology of Her Era
Although Mary Anning spent most of her life in comparative poverty, she supplied the best intellectual minds of the time with ammunition for their geological theories. 'Ammunition' may at first seem a strange word to use. In the context of the bitter debates of the 1800s, however, it is extremely apt.
The church, and the traditional biblical worldview it represented, was finding itself at odds with emerging ideas, born of a new age of scientific exploration. At the time, it was firmly believed that the Earth was 6000 years old, for instance. This 'truth' was in obvious conflict with the newly discovered geological evidence, which suggested that there was simply not enough time for the various continents and their strata to have formed in a mere 6000 years. In effect, the world was proving itself to be much more complex than traditional theories allowed.
The conflict was a difficult one for palaeontologists and geologists to resolve, as they had to reconcile their religious beliefs with their own discoveries. This crisis of faith had tragic consequences for some. One such victim was William Buckland, who ended his days in a lunatic asylum. The constant questioning of his faith, in light of the evidence he was helping to uncover, proved too much for him. He was, in effect, undermining the biblical version of events he held so dear. The argument raged throughout the century, resurging when Darwin produced his opus, The Origin of the Species.
Visiting Lyme Regis
Information concerning organized tours of Lyme Regis and the area can be obtained from the Heritage Centre of Charmouth, which is just along the coast from Lyme Regis. Fossil shops abound in Lyme Regis itself. You can go fossil hunting along almost any stretch of the Dorset coast, but don't go alone - extreme caution is advised, as tides can be treacherous, and cliff-falls are common!