What if you made one of the most important geological discoveries of all time, but because you were a young uneducated girl, no one paid much attention – at first.
Ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur. Today dinosaurs are familiar creatures in story and song, but at the beginning of the 1800s Charles Darwin had not yet begun his work on Origin of the Species and solid evidence of the gigantic prehistoric animals had yet to be disclosed to humanity. Most people believed only in the biblical interpretation of how life progressed from the beginning of creation, and thus held that the world was only a few thousand years old. It took the tenacity and curiosity of Mary Anning in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, to discover the first complete fossilized dinosaur skeleton in England and to awaken the world to a relatively new science, the study of paleontology.
Mary spent much of her childhood roaming the beaches near Lyme Regis, in the southeast of England. With the salt air teasing her tongue, and seagulls calling on the wind, she would race across the wet sand with her dog and collect the small stone curiosities and shells that the tides revealed. Later, her father would polish the items and sell them to tourists. In the winter months she would carefully climb the nearby dangerous cliffs layered of white limestone and blue-grey shale to uncover any profitable ‘finds’ that the treacherous winter landslides exposed.
In 1809, the year she turned ten, her father died and her mother was faced with the daunting task of supporting her two children by herself. Mary soon quit school and began to scour the seaside cliffs as her main occupation, looking for more unusual stone curiosities the family could sell. At one point her older brother, Joseph, found the partial skull of a prehistoric animal, but never located any other part of the body.
A year later while out hunting in the same area, Mary bent down to examine what looked like a stone with curious markings. As Mary carefully chipped and chiseled, scraped and smoothed away the debris, she found what looked like the outline of several large teeth. Peering closely, she saw that the teeth seemed to be connected in a row.
Alerting Joseph, Mary continued to chip with her chisel and hammer to unearth the mystery. Day after day, week after week, in weather so wet and cold that her hands blistered raw, she continued her pursuit. The villagers must have thought her odd, and her mother must have been dismayed that Mary was not earning any money with this endeavor, but Mary continued. One day against the sound of waves lapping at the shore, Mary Anning stood up to examine her work. There in front of her emerged the complete shape of a four foot long animal skull connected to neck and shoulder bones. Mary must have gaped in awe at what appeared to be a giant behemoth arising up from its prehistoric rest. What type of animal, Mary had no idea. But she knew enough about stone curiosities and shells to suspect this large specimen could be one of a kind.
For the next several months, sometimes with the help of her brother, she spent long and tedious days hunched over, chipping and brushing away the limestone. There were times when she was only able to clear a three inch section due to the inhospitable weather conditions. But finally the entire outline of an animal never seen before became clearly delineated in the stone. The imprint of the skeleton was 17 feet long.
Many of the villagers thought it was a huge crocodile or perhaps even a dragon, but a man came to her mother’s house and offered the sum of twenty pounds for the large ‘stone’ Mary and her brother had discovered. The man, Lord Henry Henley, planned to sell it to a wealthy collector of fossils. Twenty pounds was more money than the Annings had ever seen, and Mrs. Anning must have urged Mary to take the offer.
Mary did sell him the ‘stone’ which eventually found its way to the British Museum in London, where the amazing fossil is still on display today. The money from Lord Henley eventually enabled Mary to set up her own business where she sold fossils, petrified traces of marine animals now forever embedded in stone. She continued her work searching for fossils and during the course of her lifetime made additional discoveries of other prehistoric creatures.
She died in 1847 at the age of 48 from breast cancer and was buried in the local church yard in Lyme Regis. As a poor child she never dreamed that one day the entire scientific world would hear her name. For the price of 20 pounds, she gave us a glimpse into life on Earth 200 million years ago.
For further information on Mary Anning, you can read Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier or the children’s book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins. Both are available at http://www.amazon.com.
“The laws of nature are but mathematical thoughts of God.”
From Pearls of Wisdom, compiled by Keith Adams – available at http://www.amazon.com
Thank you to my wonderful proof reader and fellow writer, Dixiane Hallaj, author of It’s Just Lola available at http://www.amazon.com