Where history happened: Georgian fossil hunting

Nige Tassell and Michael Taylor explore Dorset's Jurassic Coast, where 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning made some of the most significant geological finds in history

The beach at Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset, has attracted fossil hunters for centuries. (Getty Images)

It’s a sound you don’t hear on too many other British beaches, at least not beyond Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. It’s tinny and metallic, and on busy days, it’s all around you. It’s the sound of geological hammer on rock, the sound of hoped-for discovery.

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As it’s the first warm afternoon of the Easter school holidays, today you can hear that chiming sound right along the coastline around Lyme Regis and Charmouth. This fossil-rich stretch of coast has been the haunt of palaeontologists, both professional and would-be, for centuries. Today is no exception. The main beach-access car parks have no vacant spaces. The chance to discover evidence of life that has been trapped in rock for millions of years, with the warm sun at your back, is too strong a draw.

Along the rugged, weather-beaten coast, today’s hammer-wielding masses are doing it for fun. Nearly 200 years ago, Lyme Regis’s most famous fossil hunter was doing it to survive.

Born in the town in 1799, Mary Anning (pictured) was the daughter of a carpenter who supplemented his income by selling geological finds to curious tourists. When he died in 1810, his wife Molly took over the fossil business. The family’s first significant find occurred the following year when Mary’s brother, Joseph, uncovered the skull of an ichthyosaur, a large marine reptile that lived about 200 million years ago. Within a few months, Mary had found the remainder of the skeleton. The find generated much-needed cash for the family, who had been left in serious debt by Mary’s father. An injection of £23 into the Anning coffers, paid by the local lord of the manor, was very welcome; it was around the average annual wage for a farm labourer. Eight years and two further sales later, the skeleton was in the possession of the British Museum (it’s now in the Natural History Museum), inspiring visitors to seek out the treasures of Dorset’s beaches for themselves.

Fossil fever

While it’s probably too much of an overstatement to describe Lyme Regis at the time as a fossil equivalent of a gold-rush town, in the 19th century there was a regular flow of human traffic towards what is now called the Jurassic Coast, at least in part motivated by the growing interest in palaeontology. Interest in Mary had been growing too. She had continued the family business, and in so doing became one of the tourist attractions of Lyme.

“Seaside resorts had become fashionable, and Lyme Regis was on a direct route from Bath,” explains Michael Taylor, specialist in Jurassic marine reptiles and the history of their collecting. “Think Jane Austen’s Persuasion: genteel holidaymakers, middle-class folk on annuities, officers on half-pay. They could go for a walk, dance in the Assembly Rooms, play cards, write letters, collect seaweed, paint the fashionably Romantic landslipped scenery – and, for a few, seek fossils on the beach or in Anning’s shop.

“Anning was serving the upmarket tourist, as well as selling top-end specimens to museums,” says Taylor. “But Lyme Regis was special for geologists at all levels: fossils freshly generated by storms, coastal erosion and landslipping – and, insanely, the quarrying of the shore and cliffs for limeburning, endangering the town. Anyone at all interested in geology made the town a stop on their itinerary, at the very least.”

Two centuries on, fossils continue to provide Lyme Regis with a strong identity. Specimens are sold in shops all around the town, while the gloriously higgledy-piggledy Lyme Regis Museum, extended by the completion of its Mary Anning Wing last year, satiates visitors’ thirst for knowledge.

The meaning of life

The museum is built on the site of the original Anning family shop, by the sea. Both this and Anning’s later shop, up steep Broad Street, would have been perfect for tempting the well-heeled passing trade to invest in a curio or souvenir of their stay. “Anning helped the local economy with the footfall that she attracted,” Taylor comments. “She seems to have been well-regarded by most palaeontologists, especially the female ones, and notably kind to little children buying fossils for pennies. Geologists held at least one personal auction and two whiprounds – one to complement a government grant – to help Anning at times of crisis, such as her final illness. When she died of breast cancer in 1847, they and Lyme’s rather grand vicar erected a memorial window in the church, commemorating her good nature and kindness to the poor as much as her geological work.”

Although Anning was by no means the only collector in this area, her finds were highly significant. She discovered important specimens of high quality, including the first complete plesiosaur and a flying reptile known as a pterosaur.

Such discoveries significantly shaped scientific views in the 19th century. “Serious thinkers were already agreed that fossils were remains of very ancient life,” explains Taylor. “You could look at them as living things of the past, and the Lyme Jurassic ecosystem, if you like, was one of the first ancient worlds reconstructed in words and pictures. Anning’s finds were valuable here, especially the coprolites – fossil faeces – of predators such as sharks and ichthyosaurs with the remains of prey in them. Lyme Regis helped develop the wider picture of how life changed over geological time, though it was another matter whether this change was by transmutation – as evolution was then called – or successive special divine creations.”

The discovery of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs not only charged the public imagination but also influenced debate within scientific quarters. A new chapter was being written and inserted into the known timeline of life. Says Taylor: “These fossils helped drive home the notion of an Age of Reptiles. Moreover, as the world became better explored, it was clear that these animals, and many others such as the ammonites also found at Lyme Regis, were now extinct.

“Fossils were also hard to compare with living forms. This posed real problems about the pattern and completeness of divine creation, and why God should have rendered many organisms extinct. But I don’t think the Lyme Regis reptiles had much to do with Darwin’s concept of evolution through natural selection. They were too far out on a limb, without any obvious relatives, to be worth arguing about.”

As a carpenter’s daughter eking out a living by selling her discoveries in her shop, Anning was far from a paid-up member of this scientific community. And that’s why her life and work weren’t documented in any great abundance. Over the two centuries since, the paucity of information has, argues Taylor, led to misinterpretation and misinformation.

“My colleague Hugh Torrens has studied her historiography – the history of history. Probing backwards, assessing the identity and competence of various authors, and comparing their words with their sources, shows that writers depressingly often repeated old errors and added new ones. There is not that much hard documentary evidence about Anning as a person either, and historians tend to discount fossils as opposed to paper documents. It all left gaps for people to fill with their own priorities and moral axe-grinding, especially in improving books for children.

“Hugh has also found that formal records about her finds – museum annual reports and the like – blank her out almost completely. But that was bog-normal, a combination of patchy record-keeping in the early days of museums, and the Gentlemen versus Players mentality: you sold a fossil and got money, or you gave the fossil and got kudos.”

Sucking her brains

Sometimes those who’d purchased fossils from Anning then used them as the basis of scientific papers they would publish. This allegedly exercised her. “She says the world has used her ill,” wrote Anna Maria Pinney, who tried fossil-hunting with Anning. “These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.” Although this does omit the fact that Anning gained a living from it.

Mary Anning never published a single scientific paper; all that was ever printed under her name was part of a letter she had sent to the Magazine of Natural History questioning a claim made in a previous edition about a fossil shark.

If Anning was an outsider, Taylor argues, this was down to economics and class as much as gender. “Make no mistake, the many geologically inclined female amateurs were, to our eyes, abominably treated for years, excluded from most societies and often relegated to supporting their husbands or brothers. But it is an open question whether this was the most immediate problem for Anning. She already lacked the middle-class levels of disposable cash and time needed to be a geologist, in the sense of being a member of relevant societies and buying the books and journals, and taking the time to participate in the science.

“Rather surprisingly, I’m not sure whether being female actually disadvantaged Anning as far as geology was concerned, given her existing constraints. It surely helped raise her profile as a curiosity for tourists. Certainly, she did well to find her own trade given the few options available to unmarried women in her position.”

The passing of time may have skewed or repositioned Anning and her motivations, but it’s undeniable that this working-class woman of limited means continues to be the patron saint of fossil hunters, especially so here on the Jurassic Coast where her name and legend are stronger than ever. She’s inspired generation after generation to take to the beaches and seek out evidence of these past worlds. Were she to walk among today’s wannabe palaeontologists, her ears ringing with the chiming of hammer on rock, Mary Anning would surely approve.


Five more places to explore

1

Runswick Bay, Whitby, North Yorkshire

Where fossil hunters still flock

A few miles north of Whitby, Runswick Bay is a rich treasure trove for fossils when the tide is right – ammonites in particular. The Yorkshire coast is a magnet for palaeontologists, both professional and amateur. You can also admire many of its fossils in nearby Whitby and Scarborough Rotunda museums.

discoveryorkshirecoast.com

2

Natural History Museum, Central London

Where ancient fossils are on show

The Natural History Museum’s collection of marine reptile fossils features a great many discoveries from the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, including several finds made by Mary Anning in the early 19th century near her hometown of Lyme Regis.

nhm.ac.uk

3

Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, Dorset

Where a sea-reptile resides

Visit this year and you’ll come face to face with the ichthyosaur that starred in the BBC documentary Attenborough and the Sea Dragon, not to mention scores of fossils discovered in the heart of the Jurassic Coast. The centre also runs guided fossil hunting walks.

charmouth.org/chcc

4

Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford

Where 375,000 fossils are gathered

This museum boasts a sizeable collection of fossil specimens from right around the globe. The collection includes specimens gathered by William Buckland, the noted palaeontologist (and associate of Mary Anning) who was born at Axminster near Lyme Regis.

oum.ox.ac.uk

5

Llantwit Major, Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales

Where shellfish are plentiful

One of the most southerly points in Wales, the beach at Llantwit Major offers different fossils than nearby south-west England. Ammonites are less common than in Dorset or the north Somerset coast, but shellfish – such as brachiopods and gastropods – are numerous and comparatively easy to find.

visitwales.com

Dr Michael Taylor is a former curator at National Museums Scotland and visiting fellow at Leicester University. He has written extensively on the history of fossil collecting and museums. Words: Nige Tassell.

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This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine