Saturday, January 2, 2010

Remarkable Creatures - Mary Anning

This evening while driving home from grocery shopping I heard an interesting story on National Public Radio's All Things Considered show.  It was an interview with writer Tracy Chevalier about her new book entitled Remarkable Creatures.  The fictional novel is about the real life English fossil hunter/dealer Mary Anning (1799-1847) from Lyme Regis, England.  While her name was not familiar, I remember coming across reference to an English woman who found dinosaur like creatures in England in the 19th century.  Apparently, what was unique in that she was a poor, uneducated woman in a field of upper-class scholars in the early 1800s.  She had to sell fossils to tourists and museums to support her family after her father died in 1810.
Portrait of Mary Anning at British Museum
Source is Wikipedia Commons
Looks like she pointing to a coiled ammonite
and it nice to see the rock hammer and 
collecting basket included in the painting 

She and her family are credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus in 1821.  Ms Anning also found the first mostly intact Plesiosaurus in 1823.  The fossils in the Lyme Regis appear to be creatures of the Jurassic Period which she found eroding out of the cliffs by the ocean.
Drawing of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus found by Ms. Anning
Found on Wikipedia Commons from 1918 book 

The novel also involves the Mary's friend Elizabeth Philpot, who is 20 years older and moved to Lyme Regis in 1805 with her sisters.  As the author decribes in the NPR interview, "It's about fossils but it's also about friendship.  And in a way this book tries to answer that question, 'What do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels?'"  A museum exists in Lyme Regis named after the Philpot sisters and documents Mary Anning's contributions to the field of paleontology.

The subject definitely caught my attention to keep me listening to the over 7 minute story on the radio.  I am not much for historical fiction though but might read it out of curiosity.  Researching these older fossil collectors has lead me to believe that maybe the "golden age" of fossil collecting was in the 1800s.  Researching Ms. Anning's story directed me into finding another recently published book, a biography entitled The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling.

Below is an ammonite (ancient squid like creature in a spiral shell) from Lyme Regis, England that is on display at the natural history museum in Paris, France.  These ammonite fossils were the bread and butter to a fossil dealers like Mary Anning.

Find out more:

Wikipedia entry on Mary Anning

Visit the website entry at the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum where Ms. Anning lived and sold her fossils.

San Diego Supercomputer Center - Women of Science entry on Mary Anning

University of California Berkeley entry on Mary Anning.  Apparently, they are trying to track down the fossils she prepared for museums or private collections.  See the web page for more information.

BBC page on Famous People web link

Women in the Golden Age of Geology in Britain web link

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