Mary Anning


Late one afternoon in a high altitude gorge in the Indian Himalaya, whilst looking around for rocks to hold down the tent, I found a fossil.

It was a small one, no larger than a debit card.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Over the years I’d seen many fossils in the quarry like terrains above the tree line but this was the first time I’d seen one which was small enough to take with me.   

I picked it up and studied it: there was a spiral of fine indentations, which at a guess had been some kind of shellfish or a worm.

With the light fading and a cold wind blowing Anya yelled out at me rather testily:

What are you doing?!

We’re supposed to be getting the tent up!

I shoved the fossil in my pocket.

For years afterwards, it sat on my desk next to my laptop.

I made no effort to find out what kind of fossil it was, of which creature. It was a souvenir.   

Then one evening, decades later, I saw a film called ‘Ammonite’ and as a result, that small souvenir garnered at random in an abyss became a stepping stone on a journey into the life story of a remarkable woman……

Set in the early 19th century, ‘Ammonite’, was loosely based (very loosely) on the life of the British fossil collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet). Mary walked the coast of Lyme Regis, Dorset, scouring the cliffs at low tide and collecting fossils which she then cleaned and sold at her small shop. It was small ammonites which her most common find and also accounted for much of her sales.

‘Ammonite’ however wasn’t essentially about the life of Mary Anning; rather, its main focus was on the far-fetched notion of a romantic relationship between her and the wife of one her customers, Charlotte Murchison. That women played an important role in Mary Anning’s life was one thing but quite another to suggest that she had a lesbian relationship with one of them, for which there is not a scrap of evidence. What’s more, adding the film’s tendentiousness, was the portray of their first sexual experience together involving oral sex – this in prudish Victorian England, where all mention of sex was strictly taboo (and in the famous words of D.H. Lawrance, ‘the dirty little secret’). In short, politics weighed heavier in the producer’s mind than history.

But all this to one side, after watching this film, I finally realised after all those years that the fossil sitting on my desk was an ammonite. And perversely, after years of indifference, I now wanted to know more about it, which in this era of limitless information at our finger tips, was easy enough to find.

The ammonite was an invertebrate creature which dwelled inside a shell and was related to today’s octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. They had fed on plankton or vegetation growing on the sea floor and hence inhabited shallower seas rather than its depths.

Fossils of ammonites were found all over the world in many different strata of rock and for a good reason: they were one of the world’s most successful creatures, inhabiting the prehistoric oceans for over 300 million years, almost twice as long as the dinosaurs. In the course of their long existence, they evolved into a huge multiplicity of forms, ranging from the very small –a few centimetres – to the very big: two metres.

The ammonite fossil which I had found was formed hundreds of millions of years ago on the continent of Gondwana whilst it was still submerged. Then Gondwana rose from the oceans about 50 million years ago broke up, forming the continents of Antarctica and Australia – and, the Indian subcontinent which drifted north until about 40 million years ago it crashed into the Asian landmass, creating the Himalayas. My ammonite fossil in other words had been created in the ancient seas near the south pole and later, hoisted into the high altitudes of northern India by a major continental collision.

Thanks to seeing the film ‘Ammonite’, I discovered the story behind the small fossil on my desk which for decades had remained incognito.

But having got this far, I wanted to know more about Mary Anning.

As I began trawling the information oceans, I realised that she had done an awful lot more than collecting and selling ammonites…..


Born in 1799, Mary Anning entered a world where she had everything against her including gender, class and history. Her family was poor and their life was hard, focused on securing the brute necessities of life: food and shelter. One means of making a few extra pounds was by searching the coastal cliffs of Lyme Regis for fossils or ‘curios’ as they were known. These cliffs consisted of layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow seabed early in the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago) – which saw a remarkable explosion of life on the planet. This was when the plethora of dinosaurs appeared and ruled the world until they were wiped out by a massive meteor implosion 65 million years ago.

The cliffs of Lyme Regis were unstable and especially after heavy rains were prone to landslides. Yet it was these landslides which exposed new fossils and were hence formed the best time to find ‘curios’. The risks of Anning’s profession were illustrated when in October 1833 she barely avoided being killed by a landslide that buried her black-and-white terrier, her constant companion when she went collecting.

‘The death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.

In the early 19th century, fossil collecting was moving beyond the realm of tourist trinkets and drawing increasing interest from scientists: men from the middle and aristocratic classes who did not regard fossils as ‘curios’ – and were prepared to pay good money for well-preserved specimens. At the time, most people believed in a literal interpretation of the bible: Earth was created by God in 7 days and was only a few thousand years old and hence, that species did not evolve or become extinct. Doubts however were beginning to appear amongst the ranks of these scientists.

In 1811, at the age of 12, whilst accompanying her father and brother in search of curios Mary dug up – and assembled – the complete skeleton of an large and unknown prehistoric animal, a remarkable achievement for a person of her age. It was purchased for 23 pounds – a big sum indeed for a poor working class family – and put on public display in London where it created a sensation. Confronted by the evidence of an unknown creature, it raised profound questions in scientific circles. In 1814, it became famous when a certain Sir Everard Home wrote a series of six papers, analysing the skeleton for the Royal Society. No mention was made of who found and assembled the skeleton. That a 12 year girl had accomplished this was just as incredible as the skeleton itself – yet it was the latter which got all the attention.

 Perplexed by the creature, Home kept changing his mind about its classification, first thinking it was a kind of fish, then thinking it might have some kind of affinity with the Australian platypus – only recently recognised by science as a real creature. He concluded it was intermediate form between salamanders and lizards. In other words, he could not think outside of the inherited intellectual straight jacket of religion – of the world being created by God in seven days.

Mary Anning’s find was later sold for £45 and five shillings to the British Museum where it was described as a  “crocodile in a fossil state” and given the name Ichthyosaurus. The name stuck.

Today this fossil can still be seen only now, unlike then, it is clearly attributed to Mary Anning.



For the rest of her short life, Mary Anning scoured the cliffs of Lyme Regis and continued to make important finds. She found and assembled the first complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus.

Once again, when the plesiosaurus skeleton was presented at the Geological Society, no mention was made of Mary Anning, even though she had collected two skeletons of this creature and made a sketch of its anatomy which was used in the presentation.

In later years, Anning discovered other prehistoric fossils including giant fish which she assembled.

As a woman, Anning was treated as an outsider to the scientific community. At the time in Britain, women were not allowed to vote, hold public office, or attend university. The newly formed, but increasingly influential  ‘Geological Society of London’ did not allow women to become members, or even to attend meetings as guests The only occupations open to working-class women were farm labour, domestic service, work in the newly opened factories – and of course, prostitution.  

Although Anning knew more about fossils and geology than the collectors to whom she sold them, it was they who invariably published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found, neglecting to even mention her name.

Anna Pinney, a young woman who sometimes accompanied Anning while she collected, wrote:

“She says the world has used her ill … 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.”


To the last days of her short life Mary Anning suffered from the blind prejudice of the times. There were however amateur scientists of the day who recognised Mary Anning’s abilities. As one recorded:

The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. …it is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.

‘Divine Favour?’ An interesting expression, one so typical of the 19th century.

Religion lay at the root of the oppression of women and furthermore, the inability of scientists to understand how profound Many Anning’s fossilised specimens were.

 In 1859 Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the origin of the Species’ was published. It was an earth shattering work. Darwin, himself a Christian, had hesitated long before finally writing his book based on his conclusions.

A major advance in the scientific thinking about the prehistoric past formed the foundation of Darwin’s work and as far as this went, it was Mary Anning who played a pivotal – yet unrecognised role in the publication of this scientific milestone. 

Mary Anning died at the age of 47 from lung cancer. To kill the pain she took opium – and was ridiculed by the locals who assumed she had taken to drink.

Today she would be a professor at a name university.

In the 19th century she died in complete anonymity. 



The Ichthyosaurus: first depicted as a kind of crocodile. 




Thank you for looking at my site, cheers, Peter