She Sells Sea Shells

05 21 Mary AnningToday is the birthday of Mary Anning, who was born in 1799. She lived in Lyme Regis and collected fossils from the cliffs there. Mary made several significant finds including the first two plesiosaur skeletons and the first pterosaur to be found outside of Germany. Her earliest significant find was in 1811, when she and her brother Joseph recovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton that was complete enough to be identified as a new and unknown species.

People were, at that time, very confused about what dinosaur bones actually were. Perhaps they were the remains of creatures that had been drowned in Noah’s flood. Perhaps God had put them there as decoration. Few people had any idea that the earth was any more than a few thousand years old. They had no idea that species might evolve and then become extinct. They thought that the world had been created just as they saw it and that everything on it had always been there. Although Mary was not part of the debate that led to the theory of evolution, she provided much of the raw material that set people wondering.

05 21 anning ichthyosaur skull

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker, who supplemented his income by mining fossils from the cliffs and selling them to tourists. Lyme Regis had become a popular tourist resort, particularly after the French Revolution made travel to the continent less attractive. Selling fossils was a good way for local people to supplement their income. Ammonites were sold as ‘snake stones’, belemnites as ‘devil’s fingers’ and fossilised vertebrae as ‘verteberries’. She was one of ten children, but only she and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood. Infant mortality was not unusual in the nineteenth century, around half of all children born did not survive beyond the age of five. Mary was particularly lucky though as, when she was just fifteen months old, she was involved in a terrible accident. There was an equestrian show in town, put on by a travelling company of horsemen. She was being held by a neighbour who was standing beneath an elm tree with two other ladies as they watched the show. The tree was struck by lightning and all three women were killed. Mary was rushed home and miraculously revived in a bath of hot water. Afterwards, some attributed her curiosity, intelligence and lively nature to the incident.

When Mary was eleven, her father died after falling from the cliff. She continued his fossil collecting work to support the family. It was dangerous work. What made the cliffs along the Dorset coast such a great place for fossils was the fact that they were very unstable. New fossils would be exposed when part of the cliff collapsed during a winter storm. Mary would have to collect her finds before they were washed away and there was always the risk of a further landslide. Smaller fossils, the ammonites and belemnites sold for a few shillings and larger finds were infrequent and unpredictable, so it was hard for her to support her family. When, in 1820, they had become so poor that they were on the point of having to sell their furniture to pay the rent, one of her most frequent customers sold his collection to help support them.

In 1830, a geologist named Henry de la Beche painted a watercolour called ‘Duria Antiquior’ which was the first depiction of life on prehistoric earth which was imagined from real fossil evidence. He based his painting largely on the finds of Mary Anning. Henry had the drawing made into prints which were also sold to help support her in her work.

05 21 duria antiquior

As a women from a working class family she had little formal education. But she avidly read any scientific literature on the subject of palaeontology that she could get hold of and she became very knowledgeable. She arranged and mounted all her specimens herself. Mary became well known amongst geologists and her larger finds went to important collectors who went on to write papers on them. Unfortunately, they rarely credited her.

Apart from her larger discoveries she made two other significant contributions to the science of palaeontology. She suggested that stones found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur fossils were fossilized faeces. Before that, it was thought that they were a type of stone that had formed in the digestive system of the animal, called a bezoar. This was proved to be correct because when they were broken open the fossilized remains of smaller animals were found inside. This has told us an enormous amount about the food chain in the distant past.

05 21 belemnitesSecondly she discovered that belemnites, a sort of long pointed fossil, contained a chamber resembling an ink sac. Mary dissected their modern relatives, the squid and the cuttlefish in an effort to better understand the anatomy of the ancient cephalopods. Inside the chamber she and her friend Elizabeth Philpot, a fellow collector, found a substance that proved to be fossilized ink. Elizabeth was able to revivify some of the ink and Mary used it to make drawings of some of her ichthyosaur fossils.

Although highly knowledgeable on her subject she was not able to engage fully with the scientific community. In a world where women were not allowed to vote or attend university, she was not allowed to join the newly formed Geographical Society of London. A lot of the material written about her following her death was aimed at children and was rather over romanticised and inaccurate. The tongue twister ‘She sells sea shell on the sea shore…’ was written about her. Long after her death her importance has been recognised and, in 2010, the Royal Society named her as one of the top ten most influential British women in science.


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