Mary Anning – Fossil Hunter Extraordinaire

Mary Anning fossil hunter was practically born that way because of her father. He was an amateur fossil hunter and she became intrigued with these prehistoric petrified forms because of his interest in them. However, her beginnings did not seem to be illustrious and people might have been surprised that she would one day go on to gain such success and fame related to fossils.

Mary Anninng fossil hunter

Mary Anning. Public domain.

Her story begins in the month of August 1800 when a company of strolling equestrians arrived in Lyme-Regis in Dorset, England. They began displaying their agility by offering an out-door vaulting performance. Attracted by the spectacle, “crowds of towns-people were seen making their way to the Rackfield, through the narrow and ancient streets of that borough.”[1] The weather was very sultry, and a passing cloud discharged a heavy shower. This caused the assembled crowd to hasten home. “About five o’clock there was an awful peal of thunder, which re-echoed … [from] the fine cliffs of Lyme Bay.”[2]

Among those caught in the sudden downpour were three adults and a fifteenth month old child who as a “whole ran under the dangerous shelter of an elm-tree, when a flash of lightning dealt instant destruction [killing everyone].”[3] Someone took the child and put her into warm water. The apparently dead child revived amid “joyful exclamations of the assembled crowd.”[4] This child was the fifth child of a carpenter named Richard Anning and his wife Molly. Her name was Mary Anning, and although supposedly she had been “a dull infant … was ever after a lively [intelligent] child.”[5]

Lyme Regis was a coastal town that Jane Austen provided a graphic description of in Persuasion. It was located about two miles from Charmouth, a spot where coaches from London to Exeter passed through regularly. Among the travelers to the area were several curious men who sold such things as “the bones of crocodiles’ backs and jaws, ladies’ fingers, John Dorie’s petrified mushrooms, &c.”[6]

Eventually, a gentleman by the name of Mr. South began to visit the area searching for interesting objects and curiosities. Mary’s father, Richard, began to accompany Mr. Smith on his searches. When Richard “found anything pretty, he placed it upon a table in front of his residence to attract the attention of visitors … [which] made his wife, Molly Anning, very angry, as she considered the pursuit [of searching for oddities and curiosities] utterly ridiculous.”[7]

Mary Anning and her family lived close to the sea. Therefore, the same storms that exposed the fossils and curiosities along the cliffs, also sometimes flooded Mary’s home. One storm in fact was so powerful it flooded the home and the Annings were forced to crawl out an upstairs window to avoid drowning.

Mary’s House and shop drawn in 1842. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Anning and her brother, Joseph, spent many a pleasant day with their father investigating the coastal cliffs and rock-bound crags searching for treasure. It seemed Mary “possessed a sort of intuitive knowledge as to where the fossils lay embedded in the cliffs.”[8] This is what partially resulted in her having a career in fossils.

In 1810, when Mary was ten years old, her father died. There are at least two stories as to how Richard’s death occurred. The first one claims he was on the way to Charmouth to deliver a message, took a short cut and died falling off a cliff. The second story is that he was searching for fossils, fell, and badly injured himself and eventually died from the injuries he sustained in the fall.

Mary’s mother might have maintained negative feelings towards fossil hunting if a significant event had not happened after her husband’s death. The family was struggling financially. and it was reported:

“Mary went down to the shore to look for curiosities … [and] found a cornemonius, a corruption of cornu ammonis, which is now called an ammonite … [but] something occurred as she was returning which decided … her future career.”[9]

 It was fortuitous that this find resulted in “a lady in the street, seeing the pretty fossil in her hand, offered her half-a-crown for it … she accepted; and from that moment [on Mary became] fully determined to go … ‘upon [the] beach’ again, and thus find [a] means to support [her] family.”[10]

Mary then began to visit the cliffs regularly to find fossils, which helped her family financially. She roamed the exposed ledges created landslides, workmen, or the sea. She examined and sifted through beds of marl (a calcium carbonate or lime-rich mud containing variable amounts of silt and clay) and through the geological formation known as Blue Lias that consisted of limestone and shale layers. About four months after Mary’s discovery of the ammonite, there was more good news:

[She] saw a bone of some kind projecting from … [the] marl. She traced the organic fossil — a crocodile as was then believed — and men she hired dug it out.”[11]

Her brother had found the skull of this supposed crocodile some days earlier and now she had discovered its body. It was reported:

“H.H. Henley, Esq., the lord of the manor, purchased these organic remains for the sum of £23, intending the fossil for his private museum; but he eventually gave it to Bullock’s Museum, where it was greatly admired; and the trustees of the British Museum purchased it when the Piccadilly collection and exhibition were dispersed. This so-called crocodile was no less than a specimen of the Ichthyosaurus … [and] it quite engrossed the attention of the scientific world.”[12]

Drawing by Everard Home – The Ichthyosaurus Skull Found by Joseph Anning, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her finds were sometimes reported by newspapers. For instance, one fossil discovery made by Mary Anning in 1830 was reported in the Yorkshire Gazette until the title “Fossil Remains.” The article stated:

“We have the pleasure to be the first to communicate to the geological world the discovery by Miss Mary Anning, of an entirely new specimen of fossil organize remains, embedded in the lias of Lyme Regis. The geologists will have to find what animal now existing is analogous to it. It is about a foot and a half long, has two immense sockets for the eyes, a long snout, a series of the finest vertebrae that have ever been seen in so small a create, claws, fins like wings, and some beautiful fluted thorns like those of the Ray, with the expectation, that in the fish they are not fluted. We could speculate largely upon the habits of this animal when living in the deep, but we refrain – sufficient it is that the discovery will afford much discussion.”[13]

Mary went on to find other significant discoveries. Some of her finds include several ichthyosaur fossils, several plesiosaur skeletons, fossil fish and the first pterosaur outside of Germany, as well as numerous vertebrate fossils of marine reptiles. She also bought home many other discoveries and opened a shop she filled with her discovered treasures. As her collection grew, it attracted more and more important visitors, and, in 1844, the King of Saxony went to see her collection:

“[[He] bought six feet of the skeleton of a reptile for fifteen pounds. He asked her to write her name in his pocket-book, which she did, and he said that … [she] was well known throughout Europe.”[14]

Mary Anning Fossil Hunter

Mary Anning fossil hunting by Henry De la Beche, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

For all her fame, Mary Anning’s work was exceedingly difficult and dangerous. This was demonstrated when her constant companion, a black and white terrier named Tray, was buried and killed in a landslide. Of his death she wrote to her friend, Charlotte Murchison stating:

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”[15]

Mary Anning

Painting of Mary Anning and her dog Tray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary’s discoveries and contributions created a major impact in the field of geology, and, in fact, helped establish geology as a science. Moreover, her discoveries shook the biblical interpretations of creation. This resulted in her maintaining friendships with some of the greatest men of the 1800s that included:

“Buckland, Delabeche, Sir Everard Home, Birch Conybeare, Cuvier, … Sir R. Murchison, Sir C. Lyell, Professor Owen, Agassiz, and, in a word, … the greatest savans of the age.”[16]

It was reported that Mary Anning often went out looking for fossils after storms. She did not always find what she was looking for because sometimes she came across smuggled items, such as kegs of whiskey, that washed up on shores. Ninety-year-old Master Hupjohn reported of these unexpected finds:

“Well she’d say nothing to the custom-house officers – they called ’em custom-house officers in those days – but she’d just cover it up all over with sea-weed, and when she came back from fossiling, she’d say to one of we, quite natural like, ‘There be great heap of sea-weed down there be,’ in such or such a place, she’d say. We knowd what she meant, she was wonderful good to the poor people she was.‘”[17]

Despite her fame and her connections, Mary Anning began experiencing financial problems in 1830 partly because of economic conditions and partly because it was becoming more and more difficult for her to achieve major finds. Five years later, in 1835, things got worse. Mary lost most of her savings due to a bad investment. Depending on the source, she was either swindled out of her money or the man suddenly died and there was no way for her to recoup her money. Fortunately, an old friend persuaded the British government and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to award her a pension based on her geological contributions, and, thereafter, she received an annual pension of £25.

Mary Anning was known to wear a poke bonnet and a checked cloak. One person described her as “stoutish, comfortable, pleasant-faced … with wavy hair and a smiling countenance.”[18] She was also said to be rather masculine in her appearance. Yet however masculine she might have appeared, she died of breast cancer on the 9th of May 1847, a disease that also took Eliza de Feuillide‘s mother, Philadelphia.

Mary’s passing would not be forgotten. A plain and unpretentious stained-glass window was placed in the parish church at Lyme-Regis. In addition, when Mary’s mother remembered her, she said:

“[Mary] was a history and mystery … [but the] lowers, who could not understand what she had achieved, remembered [just] the deadly flash of lightning.”[19]

Mary Anning’s window at the Lyme-Regis parish church. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 43, Issues 2-4, 1858, p. 261.
  • [2] Chambers, William, etal., Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, 1857, p. 383.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Domestic Intelligence,” in Bury and Norwich Post, pg. 1, 7 April 1847, p. 1.
  • [6] Chambers, William, etal., p. 383.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Vaughn, John, The Wild-flowers of Selborne and Other Papers, 1906, p. 232.
  • [9] Chambers, William, etal., p. 383.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “Fossil Remains,” in Yorkshire Gazette, 2 January 1830, p. 3.
  • [14] Chatterbox, 1868, p. 386.
  • [15] Proceedings – Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 1944, p. 171. 
  • [16] Monthly Packet, 1893, p. 275.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 275-276.
  • [18] Chatterbox, p. 386.
  • [19] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, p. 263.

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