M is for Mary Anning

Mary Anning statue in Bristol, bristol.acl.uk

She sells seashells by 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 did sell seashells. She was well-known for doing it at the time, though only locally, and never credited by the male scientists who took her work and used it to gain their own notoriety. They say the poem is about her, although it probably was not. Yet she did, indeed, sell seashells, found seashells, drew seashells, theorized about the age of seashells, and drew plesiosaurs. By the Lyme Regis seashore.

She also invented paleontology.

Current Lyme Regis map, southampton.ac.uk.

Mary, Mary

No, that’s another rhyme…. although her garden grows with cockle shells, so maybe… And it may be that she did not exactly invent paleontology, but paleontology didn’t exist as a scientific discipline until she collected hundreds of fossils and starting drawing, mounting, and discussing them with others. And after that it did.

Mary was very much overlooked by scientists in her lifetime, although there are many who are trying to make up for it now. You can read any number of children’s books and blogs about her dirt poor upbringing, her finding a plesiosaur at age 11 (or 7?), and her conversations with the dozen famous naturalists who came looking for her help. I will refrain from a blow-by-blow recap. A few key tidibits: she was about ten years older than Charles Darwin, so if he did come to visit, he would have been seeking someone with more experience. She was brought up without an education, but it was rare for girls to be educated in the 1800s, unless they were princesses or aristocrats.

This area of southwest England on the coast was full of tall chalk-based cliffs. The coast, nicknamed now the Jurassic Coast to attract a steady stream of tourists, is on the English Channel but close to the Atlantic and, hence, prone a steady tide coming in from the deep. The tide brought in plenty of sea life, which, on its own, would have provided plenty of shells and interesting things to sell.

The Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis, from the tourist site.

Mary’s father was a cabinetmaker, but he liked fossils, too, and showed her what to do. But he died when she was 11. Yet she was so good at finding fossils, her mother encouraged her to start selling her finds, so put together the shell shop.

The Monster

Mary was best known locally for finding dozens of fossils called ammonites, those spiral shells that were part of the Age of Fish before the first of the big extinction events. She had been taught to dig them out carefully without breaking the shells and knew how to extract the bone, the fossil rock, away from other rock. She knew that you could find shells in the cliff at different levels, although naturally you could not really excavate the cliff at the bottom without creating landslides.

Mary Anning drawing of one of the ichthyosaurus.

One day, shortly after her father passed away, her older brother found the tip of a large snout. (Mary and Joseph were the only survivors of ten children). Mary did the rest of the excavation of this 15 foot long beast. Was it a kind of crocodile? A small whale? A giant fish? She knew it wasn’t something modern. She mounted it with exquisite care, as a biologist might. She drew it with painstaking detail.

The monster skeleton was sold for 23 pounds, then resold for 45 pounds. By the time the British Museum got a old of it for display, the named it fish lizard: ichthyosaurus.

Painting of Mary, pointing at a fossil. Wikimedia.

Old ichthy was not a dinosaur. He wasn’t even a land creature, so technically not like a lizard. Ichythosaurus (so hard to type!) was a giant marine reptile patrolling the waters with so many others of the Jurassic period. The dinosaurs had become sophisticated creatures on land, but the marine reptiles ruled the sea.

People Came From All Around

Mary subsequently found a plesiosaur skeleton. Same basic idea: giant marine reptile. Roughly same age. Cleaned it up, sold it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Drawing of the plesiosaur skeleton, photo from wikipedia.

But by now she had a broad reputation, so the naturalists came. Cuvier, the famous Frenchman, suggested it might be a hoax. William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen–all the big names in England (See Iguanodon post)–eventually came by to see the seashell shop and talk to Mary. A lot of what they learned as “Research” came from Mary.

She talked with Buckland about the ichthyosaur specimens and explained that she found fossil rocks within their skeleton. Mary noted that they contained bits of smaller skeletons within them. Though not formally educated, she understood natural processes. She told Buckland that they were fossilized feces–dinosaur poop. Some had stayed within the body. She and Buckland called them coprolites, and an entire wing of fossil study was born.

Ammonite the Movie

For most of her life, they came to visit and ask her questions. Mary eventually complained of all the scientific men who would show up with some flimsy excuse, then “suck her brain,” and go off to write papers for which they received credit.

She did not marry. That’s what the bios simply say. A few years ago, the movie “Ammonite” told part of her story and speculated that she had a relationship with the wife of one the aristocrats who came to pore over her fossils. Her biographers gripe about the addition of a relationship that was not documented. But she did not marry. People in that day, in that age, had to marry in order to survive. It was highly unusual to be unmarried, especially when she had so much of value around her, even though others took value from it. I’m just sayin’.

We don’t know about her relationships because we know so little about her. Because at the time, the men came to finger her seashells and ask her detailed questions, but never to thank her properly for what she was teaching them.

From the movie “Ammonite, ” by director Francis Lee.

What we know about Mary Anning is simply far too little.

One Reply to “M is for Mary Anning”

  1. What a touching story! I hope she got some solace from the attention she did get from some scientists who visited her. Her brain was great!

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