The Fossil Hunter

Mary Anning gleaning for fossils in Lyme Regis. Illustration by geologist Henry De la Beche.

My own life-long fascination with fossils was born from a book I borrowed in Kindergarden. I couldn’t even read the words but I remember the pictures vividly– no fairy tale landscape was this!  The garish illustrations of giant lizards cavorting in acidic, apocalyptic dreamscapes– dragons to my imagination– seduced me.

Just another day in prehistoric Dorset. "Duria Antiquior," watercolor by Henry de la Beche based on Mary Anning's discoveries

I announced to my grandmother that I wanted to be a paleontologist– a big word for a girl who couldn’t read very well.  She pshaw’ed the idea. “Why would you want to dig around in the dirt all day, looking for old bones?” But to me they weren’t bones.  I’d seen the creatures’s skeletons towering above me in the Field Museum in Chicago.  They were mysterious ossuaries full of terrible beauty and the idea that I might one day find one excited me more than anything else at the time.

My grandmother’s well meaning dismissal is a common story. How many young girls have been discouraged from hard sciences for similar reasons? Would things have been different had I known of the 19th palaeontologist Mary Anning when I was a girl?   Her discoveries were essential to the fundamental changes in 19th century scientific thought about life on earth and her fossil discoveries from the Dorset coast contributed to the new concept of “deep time.”

She was the subject of the famous tongue-twister:

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Mary Anning and her dog Tray. Behind them, the Jurassic Coast of Dorset.

Anning gleaned the Blue Lias cliffs near her home in Lyme Regis, which was a popular seaside resort at the time.  It was dangerous work, as the best time to search for fossils was after the frigid winter rains when landslides had revealed new fossils, but before the incoming tides took them out to sea. It was just such a landslide that almost killed her and took the life of her dog, Tray. Fossils found in the cliffs were often sold to tourists as curiosities– locals called them things like “snake stones,” “devil’s fingers” and “verteberries”.

A sickly child, she survived a lightening strike as an infant, and according to her family this miraculous event changed her into the inquisitive, seeking child she became. One wonders about this traumatic event and how perhaps the immensity of time and life on earth, opening to her in those wet, muddy cliffs might have reconciled her own death while at the same time giving her the necessary fearlessness to keep working in such dangerous conditions.

The daughter of a cabinet maker, she was shut out of much of the scientific community of the time and could not join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman. She was completely self taught, reading scientific journals and copying out borrowred books by hand and carrying out dissections to teach herself anatomy.  Many of the more well know geologists who came to her shop, “Annings Fossil Depot”, purchased her discoveries for museums and their personal collections.  Though they often knew less about these finds than she, her work was rarely credited.

At the time of her early death of breast cancer at the age of 47, the Geological Society had raised money for her medical expenses and erected a stained glass window in the parish church in her honor, and after her death many species were named after her.

The Fossil Collector Rosary Necklace and Earrings, inspired by Mary Anning, by Feral Strumpet on Etsy

2 thoughts on “The Fossil Hunter

  1. Thank you for the post. I always love to here about women who are successful in their fields even though for so long it hasn’t been recognized. I especially love to hear about women in science.

  2. Thanks, Susan– I love to hear these stories too– often it’s a difficult tightrope to try to champion their achievements while mourning what they could have done had patriarchy not got in the way!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s