"She sells seashells on the seashore" Fossil Hunter Mary Anning

21 May 1799, the fossil hunter and early palaeontologist Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis on the Dorset Coast of England.

“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.” 

(Terry Sullivan’s 1908 tongue twister that probably references Mary Anning)

Geologist and palaeontologist Henry de la Beche’s (1796 – 1855) idea of life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning (1830)

The idea of these funny shellfish-formed stones being actually petrified marine life instead of snakes turned to stone by some Northumbrian saint or something similar was actually not quite new. The Ancients, most notably Pre-Socratic Xenophanes of Colophon, already philosophised around 500 BCE that there once was sea where now was dry land and the fossils he found had been its inhabitants. 1,500 years later, Avicenna took it from there, the Chinese had developed resembling theories about the same time, Leonardo da Vinci elaborated on it and they all came up with the idea that the Earth had looked quite different in olden days and the beasties populating it did as well. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment though, that these theories were formulated in earnest beyond mere speculations. Beginning with the idea that the fossilized remains of ancient pachyderms found in Europe proved a significant climate change and ancient species did go extinct ages ago, like, for example, the mastodon, the seeds were sown for a scientific approach on bygone creatures and their environment. George Cuvier’s name stands out in the earlies of paleontology, before the discipline was even properly named, by comparing fossils with the remains of contemporary species, identifying the Mastodon and the Megatherium and what not, until he came across the first proper dinosaur in the Netherlands in 1808, the Mosasaurus. He speculated the giant aquatic lizard would have been alive long before the “Age of Mammals”, along with the Pterodactyl he identified from drawings made in Bavaria, a revolutionary, or rather evolutionary idea that rang in the 19th century’s  “Age of Reptiles”.

An 1840 painting of Mary Anning, allegedly by one Mr Grey,
showing the fossil hunter at the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast,
pointing at her trusty fossil dog Tray. The poor thing was killed in a landslide in 1833.

“... an animal of the Lizard Tribe of enormous magnitude” the obstetrician Gideon Mantell speculated about the former owner of the giant teeth his wife Mary Ann had found while he was seeing a patient in Cuckfield, Sussex, in 1822. And since the dental remains looked quite like those of an iguana, a reptile native to the Americas, he dubbed the scaly Methuselah “Iguanodon”, iguana-toothed. Mrs Mantell never got the credit for her discovery and her fellow fossil-hunter Mary Anning almost suffered the same fate. She was a strange one, young Mary was. Born into a poor working-class family in Dorset, she was the only survivor of a lightning stroke at the age of just 15 months that killed the four grown women who were with her at the time and little Mary was reported never to be the same again afterwards. Whatever that means in regards to a toddler aged 15 months. However, her father boosted the meagre salary he earned working as a carpenter by collecting and selling the petrified shellfish he found down at the beaches and cliffs of the Anning’s picturesque home, Lyme Regis, and little Mary accompanied him and showed a remarkable skill at finding and cleaning the fossils. During the late 18th and early 19th century, collecting fossils had become a gentlemen’s hobby and with the help of young Mary, Richard Anning could keep his family afloat. Mary’s old man died, though, when she was just 11 years old and she and her brother Joseph now had to earn the keep of the family. The siblings did so, by collecting fossils and selling them in a comparatively large scale. And just a couple of months later, Mary hit a mother lode, so to speak, when she discovered the 4’ long skull of a petrified beast that was later known as Ichthyosaurus, “fish lizard”. The thing sold for £23, more than 1000 Pounds in today’s money. A storm hit the cliffs of Lyme Regis shortly afterwards and Mary found the rest of the presumed ancient crocodile’s remains in its wake and her Ichthyosaurus became the first known complete Mesozoic fossil. Her discovery did not go unnoticed by the scientific authorities of the day, but one does not discover an ichthyosaurus every day, unfortunately, and without any major finds over the next ten years, fossil-hunting Mary, though main breadwinner of the Anning family, remained destitute until a rich fossil enthusiast, Thomas Birch of Lincolnshire, decided to auction off his ample collection for the benefit of her family. The discovery of the remains of a plesiosaur in 1821 and a pterodactyl in 1828 did not only increase her fame but made her enough money to finally buy a shop with a glass front in Lyme Regis instead of having to sell seashells by the sea shore as she did for more than 20 years.

A sketch by Henry de la Beche showing Mary Anning hunting fossils at Lyme Regis.

Mary Anning died at the age of 47 and even Charles Dickens felt compelled to obit: “The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.“ She was soon enough forgotten, though, and was not re-discovered until well into the 20th century. Not even a dinosaur was named in her honour until 2012 when Vincent and Benson called a genus of plesiosaur found recently at Lyme Regis “Anningasaurus”. However, her discoveries did prove that species had gone extinct ages ago and that Earth looked quite different than it does today, back then during the Age of Reptiles, as Gideon Mantell dubbed the Mesozoic Era in 1831, and, finally, the Royal Society, who refused her attendance on grounds of her gender back in the day, included her in a list of the ten British women most influential in science history. More than a hundred years after her death. Her hunting grounds, now known as the Jurassic Coast, had become a World Heritage Site long since. 

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