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Unearthing History: Mary Anning's Hunt for Prehistoric Ocean Giants

Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset, 1830

Although in reality an ichthyosaur and plesiosaur would have likely never battled, this widely shared lithograph by artist, geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche even inspired author Jules Verne to pen a similar scene in his book, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Credit: 

Henry De la Beche, Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales

 

You may not have realized it, but you’ve been acquainted with Mary Anning since you were young.

“She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

Remember this grade school tongue-twister? What you probably didn’t know is that this nursery rhyme is based on a real person who not only sold seaside curiosities by the seashore, but became world renowned for her fossil discoveries.

Caption: Portrait of Mary Anning, before 1842. Oil painting by unknown artist. Courtesy of The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was one of the best known paleontologists of her time. Born in the English seaside resort town of Lyme Regis, Anning’s most famous fossil discoveries were giant ocean reptiles, like the first ichthyosaur specimen recognized by the Geological Society in London, and the first and second ever collected plesiosaur skeletons.

Like many intrepid women in history, Mary Anning overcame a landslide of obstacles on her path to becoming “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”. Anning’s mother gave birth to possibly ten children in total, of which only two survived childhood. Mary herself was named after an older sister who died suddenly in a house fire. Not long after, 14-month old Anning was the only survivor when a nearby tree was struck by lightning and collapsed on her and four companions. The incident inspired local lore around Anning, that she “from that time, from a dull child, became very intelligent.” Anning’s father periodically collected fossils and sold them to seaside visitors as “curiosities”. His part-time trade fell to his children after he unexpectedly fell off a cliff and died. The family, now unprovided for, defaulted to parish relief and lived in poverty for many years. 

Fate took a dramatic turn sometime between 1809 and 1811 when, after several months of patient digging, Anning and her brother Joseph discovered the first specimen of an ichthyosaur. She was only 10 to 12 years old. By the mid-1820s, Anning had established herself as a reputable anatomist and took charge of the family fossil business. The fossils that the Anning family found were not only highly prized by museums and scientists, but also by European nobles with sizable fossil collections. Anning’s most famous find was a mysterious animal nearly nine feet long with a tiny head and a lanky neck. Anning had discovered her first plesiosaur at the age of 23. This was followed by the discovery of an even more complete plesiosaur skeleton in 1829, a specimen that still resides in the Natural History Museum of London today. 

Within her lifetime, Anning left her seaside town only once. Instead, prominent scientists made the journey to Lyme to call on her. She commanded respect and admiration from contemporary male scientists in an era when science was deemed a “masculine discipline”. She became so renowned that 18 years after her death, A Tale of Two Cities author Charles Dicken’s wrote a warm tribute attesting, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

 

Editor’s note: You can explore more about Victorian Britain’s fascination with the sea and natural world by visiting the “Fantastic Worlds” exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Read more online or experience the exhibit in person through February 26, 2017.