Digging up the past with Mary Anning

mary anning

We love the idea of going back in time to see what life was like, and if we had to choose one era to visit, it would be the Prehistoric Age. When giant creatures roamed the earth, the skies and the sea! Our knowledge of what life was like at that time is thanks to some stealthy, courageous and downright dedicated people; some of them trained scientists, but many regular folks, driven by a boundless curiosity for nature.

Fossil hunting isn’t easy, even now, but it was particularly tough for one legendary woman, Mary Anning, who is now considered the greatest fossil hunter ever! 

Photo by Ashleigh Joy Photography on Unsplash

Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, which is right on the Jurassic Coast, Mary was part of a very poor family. Her father, Richard, was a cabinet maker but was also a keen fossil hunter and with some help from his sidekick, Mary, he would clean up their findings and sell them in his shop.

Mary’s family was hit by many tragedies: Richard died tragically early when Mary was just 11, and Mary herself was struck by lightning as a baby, but miraculously survived! 

After her dad died, Mary and her brother, Joseph were left to provide an income for their family. Joseph turned to upholstery, and Mary – with some encouragement from her mother- followed in her father’s footsteps and went hunting for sale-worthy fossils.

What was a popular hobby for many coastal dwellers and tourists at the time became a way to make a living for the Anning family. 

Cracking Curiosity

When it came to unearthing fabulous fossils, Mary had a real knack (and like many kids these days, was a bit obsessed with dinosaurs)! She scaled cliffs, scoured through landslides and generally put her life on the line like a proper superhero! The results were AMAZING! Mary discovered:

  • An ENTIRE ichthyosaurus (a type of sea reptile, the word means ‘fish lizard’ in ancient Greek)!  She was the first person ever to find a fossil of a sea-dwelling dinosaur, and she was just 12 years old!
  • A plesiosaurus (another marine reptile with a turtle-like body). Another world first!
  • The first remains attributed to a Dimorphodon (a flying reptile. You might recognise the name Pterodactyl, which scientists came up with later).
  • That fossilised dinosaur poo is packed with even more tiny fossilised skeletons!

Intrepid but invisible

Mary wasn’t formally educated but knew how to read, and driven by both necessity and her natural curiosity, taught herself Geology and Anatomy. She found, cleaned and documented fossil after fossil and, as she sold her finds, sparked a huge interest!

Museums struggled to keep up with the demand from people who headed to displays of Mary’s discoveries in their droves, not knowing who was behind them. 

News of her discoveries began to spread, but she was discredited or worse still, male scientists passed them off as their own finds! She was ignored by the science community (she was never allowed to write for journals or newspapers, or invited to science clubs) right up until her own untimely death in 1847 and was even written out of palaeontological history until recently, despite her massive contribution.

Credit where credit’s long overdue

Photo by Bradbox licensed under CC BY 2.0

There’s no doubt that she was ignored because of the prejudices of that time. Thank goodness we know now that you shouldn’t overlook discoveries because of a lack of formal education, someone’s gender or how wealthy they are. Mary is rightly recognised as a pioneer in the field of palaeontology and her discoveries are studied by scientists to this very day.

Her livelihood may have also been the source of inspiration for a man called Terry Sullivan who wrote this famous tongue twister:

“She sells seashells on the seashore,

The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,

For if she sells seashells on the seashore,

Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

Some people think it’s about Mary selling her wares, even though they were fossils, not shells.

Whether you believe that story or not, what we do know is that her finds are now correctly credited and we celebrate everything she achieved despite her circumstances! If you ever head to Lyme Regis you’ll find museums and statues celebrating the huge contribution Mary made to our understanding of dinosaurs and prehistoric life. She inspires fossil hunters around the world now and she might even inspire you to go Jurassic treasure hunting too. Thank you Mary!


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