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

Indiana State Museum

The Indiana State Museum was my holiday visit and will be my opening post for the new year of 2010.  Happy new year everyone, I hope it brings you good health and new found knowledge.

I enjoyed my visit to the museum located at 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, Indiana.  My visit was mostly to see the geology and palentology exhibits but the museum is so much more.  It is segmented into 11 core galleries, changing exhibits gallery, two art galleries, two food venues, a two story gift shop, a theater, auditorium, and IMAX theater.  Most of my time was spent on the first level in the two galleries called "Birth of the Earth" and "Ancient Seas" along with the R.B. Annis Naturalist's Lab.

The "Birth of the Earth" gallery features three meteorites (Barringer Crater, Arizona; Campo del Cielo meteorite, Argentina) on display along with a rock brought back from the moon.  It has a number of plaques describing the different geological periods.  A Gneiss metamorphic rock that is over 3 billion years old found in Slave Province, Canada is on display. A seismograph demo is available where you can jump on the floor and generate waves it will detect and display on a real time display.  Core samples from the 1.1-1.5 billion year old Indiana basement rock are shown.  Various examples rocks (e.g. granite, siltstone, dolomite, sandstone, limestone, shale) found in the state are placed for visitors to study.

They have a nice stromatolite examples showing some polished rocks of these oxygen producing creatures from billions of years ago.  I am not sure the location of where the displayed fossils were found, there was a picture of modern day creatures found in Australia.  The display text explained that originally the rock showed bands of mud and calcium carbonate produced by cyanobacteria.  The stromatolites produced oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis banded iron layers appeared as the oxygen oxidized the metal to produce rust.

Large transparent tubes in the area that transitioned to the Indiana fossils.  The tubes contained minerals found in Indiana (calcite, quartz, dolomite, marcasite, galena, pyrite, fluorite,sphalerite, limonite, selenite, goethite, aragonite).

Interesting, the museum began in 1862 with a collection of minerals of State Librarian R. Deloss Brown. The building I was in was not started till 2002 and now they only display 2-3 percent of the entire collection.

More in another post about the fossil sections.  One last observation, they must have a Barbie doll collection because the dolls in various attire show up in the exhibits from time to time.  I did not see a note in the guide paper/map about it.