Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mary Anning and Her Fossils

I recently took a book out of the library about Mary Anning, an English fossil hunter from the early 19th century.  The book, "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier is historical fiction so the author has certainly taken artistic liberties with some of the characters, but it is still an interesting story about a woman that I hadn't previously heard about.  Mary was a poor girl who lived in Lyme Regis on the south-west coast of  England.  Her family supplemented their income by selling fossils that she and her brother found in the sea cliffs.  The best fossils were usually found after winter storms, so the fossil hunting was done largely in the cold, wet weather. It was challenging work , but Mary and her brother had a good eye for spotting the fossils and, when Mary was 12 years old, they found a dinosaur skeleton.  This discovery encouraged Mary to become an avid dinosaur hunter, and she became friends with Elizabeth Philpott, an upper-class spinster, who shared her interest in fossils. Because of the instability of the cliffs, the fossil hunting was a dangerous activity, and Mary had a close call when a landslide just missed her but killed her dog.
Over the years, Mary found other significant dinosaur remains which eventually made their way to the British Museum.  Because she was a woman and came from a working class family, she was not allowed to attend meetings of the newly founded geologists association even though she was more knowledgeable than most of the members. Many of them had bought fossils from Mary and had gleaned information about fossils from her when they visited Lyme Regis. Mary never married and always struggled financially in spite of her important discoveries.  In her forties, she became ill with cancer, and one of the well-to-do fossil enthusiasts arranged for her to receive a small pension. She died at 47.
You can read more about her and Elizabeth Philpott on Wiki.

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