1812. We are at war with Britain. Britain is at war with Napoleon. We are a pain in the kiester. Napoleon is a much, much bigger problem. Life in the British Isles is tough, especially for the widowed and their children. On the south coast of England a young girl is walking along the beach when she spots something sticking out of a cliffside. It’s a skeleton, and it’s a whopper. Young Mary Anning has just found her first fossil, a critter that later will be named ‘Icthyosaurus’, a combination of the Greek for Fish and Lizard respectively. Even the best brains were stumped by the discovery, which didn’t resemble anything on earth. That was both the point and the problem. But young Mary was off an a career that brought her some material comfort and some respect among the “natural philosophers” who tried to make sense of these enormous, varied and even terrifying animals. Gender and class “issues” as we say nowadays prevented Mary from getting the full recognition her enterprise, skill and grit merited. In other words, she was poor, a woman and lower class, definitely “the wrong sort”. But, she could find fossils. Mostly, she sold them, to make a living I guess you could call her a kind of British, female Indiana Jones, with a knack for turning up the bones. Like Indy, she was very physical in her approach: she did all the cliff-scaling and rock slide dodging herself. Later on, she was attacked as a fraud because what she had turned up was too improbable to be real (Yeah, right. Improbable, like dinosaurs), but in time it was found that the animal she was accused of fabricating was the doughty pleisosaur, the star of any number of Loch Ness TV shows and movies, and very much the real thing. Not only did the poor woman have to put up with oafish, stuck-up “men of science” who used her skills but wouldn’t credit her in their writings, she also contracted breast cancer, which killed her at age 48.
The English version of the Der Spiegel web site has a good article on the “Jurassic Coast” of England, where fossil hunters still swarm, during the good weather anyway. There’s some heavy breathing about evolution and the death of God and all, but the account of plucky Mary’s career is worth a read. It’s also not a bad survery of the paleontological geology of Southern England and a description of contemporary fossil hunters and their work.
PS: There is no entry for Mary Anning in the printed Dictionary of National Biography, but maybe there is one in the new, online edition. The good people at the DNB messaged me a comment about Henry Gray, who similarly was not in the previous edition, but has an entry in the new version.