If you had lived in Victorian times, you’d have spotted her, perhaps, at the foot of Church Cliff to the east of Lyme Regis, a seaside town on England’s southwest coast. She’d have a wicker basket in one hand, a small geologist’s hammer in the other, and be dressed in a plaid coat and cape made of heavy wool—it is chilly by the shore. Her small dog, Tray, would have been skittering by her side.
What you might not have known then is that Mary Anning was arguably the greatest fossil hunter of them all, “the princess of paleontology,” a contemporary called her. In Victorian England, in an era of amateur scientists, fossil hunters were nearly always men.
Anning was born in Lyme Regis, which sits on one of the great fossil deposits from the Jurassic era. Known as the Jurassic Coast, the 95-mile stretch of red sandstone, shale, and chalk cliffs between Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, and Orcombe Point in Exmouth, is Britain’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage site.
“It’s the only visible and accessible coast that covers the whole age of the dinosaur,” says David Tucker, director of the Lyme Regis Museum. “Think of layers of sedimentary rock laid down in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Ages—like a layer of sponge, cream, and another layer of sponge cake tilting on its side. You are going through 185 million years of history.”
Lyme Regis has a literary history, too: Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) visited this seaside watering hole. In Persuasion, Jane Austen describes its “principal street almost hurrying into the water,” and the town’s “pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines” Miss Austen, who came for a stay, might have passed Mary Anning along that street, suggests Tucker.
Then, as now, fossils were the souvenir of choice. Anning, whose family was poor, hunted and sold them to supplement their income—a skill she learned from her father.
In 1811, her brother Joseph found a skull protruding from an eroding cliff face. It took months for Mary to carefully uncover a skeleton of the first Ichthyosaurus described as such in London. She was 12 years old. Her other important discoveries include the first complete Plesiosaurus—as well as the complete fossil of a flying reptile, Britain’s first Pterodactylus.
The majority of her finds ended up in museums like the Natural History Museum in London, but she remained unsung. She found fossils; others got the credit.
An eminent French anatomist unjustly accused her of fraud. “The world has used me so unkindly,” she wrote a friend. “I fear it has made me suspicious of all mankind.” Gideon Mantell, a physician and fossil hunter himself, who visited her “dirty little shop” in 1832, churlishly called her a “prim, pedantic, vinegar looking, thin female.” (Kate Winslet plays Anning in the recent film Ammonite, in which Anning falls into a lesbian relationship with Charlotte Murchison, a geologist. The characters were real; the romance, fiction.)
Scientists came and, with a whiff of patronizing amusement, consulted her. “She is a very clever, funny creature,” said an American geologist who met her. Not only did she find fossils, she sketched and studied them. Her work added proof that species can become extinct, helping pave the way for Darwin.
When she died of breast cancer at the age of 47 in 1847, as science historian Hugh Torrens points out, the city seemed to mourn—not for Anning herself but, a notice asserted, for the “serious loss to the town as her presence attracted a large number of distinguished visitors … able to appreciate her genius.”
“She sold what she found. Her fossils are credited to the rich man who donated them to museums, rather than the poor woman that found them. It’s not so much about gender as class. Today, she would be running a department at Oxford or Cambridge,” Tucker says.
Still, she was not without recognition, particularly in the last decade of her life. In 1838, the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave her an annuity. In 1846, she was made the first honorary member of the Dorset County Museum. And when she died, her death was noted in the journal of the Geological Society—which would not admit women for another half-century.
The Lyme Regis museum itself sits on the site of Mary’s house and shop, which deteriorated years ago. Her gravestone and a commemorative window can be found in St. Michael’s Parish Church.
“But the real monument is going down to the beach in summer and seeing how many kids are there hunting for fossils,” Keith Moore says. Moore, head librarian of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s academy of sciences, travels down from London several times a year for a fossil-hunting break. Among his finds: a beautifully preserved ammonite immediately claimed by his sister, and a fossilized fish, bony teeth still in place.
“It’s the excitement of the chase,” he says, “finding something lovely and learning about it afterwards—a cross between stamp collecting and Indiana Jones.”
Digging for fossils
“The Jurassic Coast has been around for millions of years and will continue to be available for everyone to enjoy once the current situation has been resolved,” the Jurassic Coast Trust advises. When that happens, young and old can follow in Mary Anning’s footsteps and hunt fossils on the beach.
The section of the Jurassic Coast around Lyme Regis boasts a well-supported collecting code for professional fossil hunters. Professionals can sometimes extract from the rock shelf and occasionally the cliffs with landowner permission, but specimens should first be offered to the museum for purchase. The general public can hunt the beaches at Lyme and Charmouth, the two safest points on the coast, but amateurs are warned to stay away from the cliffs and to beware of tides. And leave your geological hammer at home.
Those averse to gritty hands can admire someone else’s find: the 7.9-feet-long pliosaur skull—“the world’s biggest bite,” uncovered by an amateur collector and displayed in the Dorset County Museum.
A local ice cream shop scoops Jurassic-inspired flavors, like Dig-A-Saurus and Ammonite Bites, made by the Dorset-based Purbeck Ice Cream as a fundraiser for the Jurassic Coast Trust.
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged communities and disrupted travel. Be sure to research your destination and take safety precautions before, during, and after your journey. For National Geographic reporting on the pandemic, click here.
Cathy Newman, a former editor at large for National Geographic, has written for the Economist, NPR.org, and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter.