Scenic Saturday: Echoes of Mary Anning

A post by Anne JeffersonOn March 9th, 1847, the world lost a great scientist to breast cancer. She was poor, lacked formal education, and practiced a minority religion, but she had a keen eye and mind that helped see things that others couldn’t and interpret them in new ways. Her discoveries made other men famous, but she was excluded from the scientific circles that discussed her findings. Despite this, she carried on making findings and describing them throughout her life, winning the respect of the gentleman scientists of her time.

Maybe this is why the story of Mary Anning fascinates us still today, because it speaks to science and society and the ways that they sometimes uncomfortably interact. We like to presume that science is purely about the pursuit of truth and understanding the world around us. Yet who we allow to become scientists, to receive training and to earn recognition is dictated by societal constraints. And in turn these constraints may narrow the scope of scientific investigation, ultimately limiting the knowledge that is discovered and applied. And maybe we recognize that the same constraints that limited Mary Anning’s participation in the full practice of science are still at work today, just more subtly.

Or maybe it’s just that Mary Anning made her first major discovery at age 12, an age young enough that dinosaur- and fossil-obsessed six-year olds can picture themselves scrambling along cliffs or beach and finding a fossil that changes the way we think about life on earth, past and present.

I’ve written about Mary Anning and her town of Lyme Regis before, so in remembrance of her life and in honor of the contributions of all scientists kept from their full potential by the constraints of history, society, or fate, today I’ll just share a few more pictures of Anning, her fossils, and the landscape in which she worked.

portrait of Anning on left, text on right

A portrait and description of Anning in the fossil gallery of the Natural History Museum in London. Click for larger.

skeleton in a glas case

The first articulated plesiosaur discovered… by Anning on display in the Natural History Museum. The walls of this gallery are lined by fossil reptiles, many collected by Anning.

Black mud piled up at the base of the cliff on the beach.

A landslip near Lyme Regis. The cliffs here are very unstable, and have small failures after every storm. This makes them a great spot for collecting fossils – and very dangerous.

decimeter scale alternation of mudrock and limestone

Close up of the Blue Lias Formation at Lyme Regis. The alternating layers of limestone and shale laid down in a shallow Jurassic sea explain why this formation can be both a cliff forming outcrop and so incredibly unstable. Fortunately, the conditions were nearly perfect for fossil preservation.

White building with lots of windows, labeled Lyme Regis Museum

The wonderful museum in Lyme Regis, built on the site of Anning’s house and first fossil shop. Today the museum is full of fossils and historical artifacts, mostly from Anning and her contemporaries.

Constructed rock walls line a stream as an arched bridge crosses it.

A little stream that flows to the sea through the heart of Lyme Regis. I like to imagine Anning crossing it on her way between home and outcrop. It may have looked quite similar to this during her time.

Categories: academic life, by Anne, fossils, Mesozoic, outcrops

Comments (2)

  1. Kea Giles says:

    Great post, Anne! Thanks for taking us right to the spot!

  2. Alan Bates says:

    My sister lives in Weymouth (not a million miles from Lyme Regis). Some years ago I was staying with her and we went to the beach and cliffs shown in your photos. There was a fresh collapse as shown in your photo and we had a quick look and found a piece of rock, maybe 100-500 kg, containing a series of brown rib bones, presumably from a marine reptile. The rock was too big to take off the beach so someone with better equipment probably has the lump of rock in their back yard!

    Great fossils are still being found along the World Heritage coast:
    The exact location has been kept secret, although it is from the Kimmeridge Clay. The animal faced the sea and pieces of the head were recovered over several years and it is hoped that more might appear.
    The only piece of the head missing is the end of the snout which was found and taken to the Dorchester Museum where they said they weren’t interested and the finders could keep it!

    There is a fantastic website produced by Ian West, retired professor from Southampton Uni. It is well worth dipping into if you are interested in the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous of England. (With some of the best tertiary exposures in the UK – although we don’t major on “modern” rocks):

    Best wishes
    Alan Bates (lurker)