Saturday, September 10, 2011

More on Mary Anning...The Fossil Hunter

Photo Courtesy: Palgrave Macmillan
Our latest Book of the Month features another tale of Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot, two Victorian women who helped change the world's view on evolution, dinosaurs, and even a woman's role in science.  We previously talked about them in the fictional book "Remarkable Creatures", but now we get the true story in "The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World" by author Shelley Emling.

Many of the themes from Remarkable Creatures carry through to the Fossil Hunter as well, such as the second-class role of women in both social as well as scientific circles .  Despite Mary's singular ability to discover fossils other could not, and despite her providing the very data being used by male researchers to build their own fame, she was not allowed into their meetings and did not receive public credit for most of her work.

What we see more in this book, however, are many of the class issues that also came to influence her life.  She was a poor girl raised for many years by a single mother who collected fossils for money and sustenance, not pride or curiosity.    As we can see early in the book's Prologue:
By birthright, Mary should never have grown up to be a famous fossil hunter and geologist.  In addition to being dirt poor, Mary Anning was also marginalized by odds clearly not stacked in her favor: her sex, regional dialect, lack of formal eduction, and adherence to the Dissenter faith, a religious strain that didn't conform to the teachings of the established Church of England. But she enjoyed one powerhouse advantage: the very good fortune of having been born in exactly the right place at the right time, in 1799 in an unassuming town called Lyme Regis alongside some of the most geologically unstable coastline in the world.  Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, its wobbly cliffs held the remains of a baffling array of ancient reptiles, reptiles that used to roam the land and inhabit the seas hundreds of millions of years in the past.
We also learn more about her father and how he provided her all the tools she'd need for fossil-hunting, both literally and figuratively.  It began when was she only five or six years old when he'd take her for long walks on the nearby beach looking for "curios" -- the former name for fossils.  An avid fossil-hunter and and shopkeeper himself, he taught Mary how to identify interesting specimens, clean away the stone surrounding the fossil, display them in attractive cases, and smooth talk  souvenir hunters into paying a proper price for the piece.  He even crafted special tools for her child-size hands.  So even if she could not be apprenticed into a trade like her brother, she would always be able to support herself and her mother.

Sadly, her father would pass away when she was only eleven years old.  After her father's death life was not easy for the Anning family.  Constantly in debt it was all Mary could do to help with her mother's laundry business, collect fossils, and sell them in her small shop just to make ends meet.  It was up to Mary to keep the family going, although it often wasn't enough.
It is likely that living on parish relief for five years had caused Mary to focus her efforts even when she might have preferred to do otherwise.  Often the family faced the real threat of starvation, and fossil hunting was the concrete means by which they knew how to earn a living.  In addition, Mary likely continued her pursuits in an effort to honor her father's memory.  His dream had been to open a proper fossil shop, one with a glass-fronted window through which he could show off his wares.
Fortunately her discovery of complete Pleisosaur and Icthyosaur skeletons, along with countless other high quality fossils, allowed her to eventually collect enough money to purchase a quaint little house of their own complete with an attractive storefront for the "Anning Fossil Depot".  But this was small payment for all she was providing to the world of science.  As contemporary Anna Maria Pinney once wrote, "...these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal by publishing works of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages."

We also learn a bit more about the scientific debate of the time over evolution, and even a story with an American twist. We are reminded that fossils weren't considered new in Mary's time; they had been discovered for years in many parts of the world. But the idea that these creatures didn't exist never entered peoples minds. If the creatures seemed strange, it's just because they no longer lived in a certain area but still lived elsewhere. The idea that God would create animals he didn't need was inconceivable to most. But in 1796, famed French naturalist Georges Cuvier first pronounced the theory of extinction, theorizing that mammoth fossils previously found were significantly different than African and Indian elephants, and that since nobody had ever seen these giant creatures in the wild (weighing up to six tons), they must be extinct.
One person closely watching Cuvier's work was U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. A longtime fossil enthusiast and also a devout churchgoer, Jefferson felt certain that the giants described by Cuvier were hiding somewhere in the vast wilderness of the American West. He even implored Lewis and Clark to seek out the creatures during their trek in 1803 and was certain they would return with tidings of mastodons, dead or alive. By this time debate over extinction was also stirring in America, where huge bones and teeth, weathered our of farmers's fields, were initially described as belonging to giant animals drowned in the biblical flood.
There are other, smaller discoveries that are no less important to our understanding of the ancient world.  She was the first to notice that when adding water to the tiny chambers in some marine fossils, she could create an ink that could be used for either painting or drawing.  These would turn out to be the very ink sacs ancient creatures used to avoid predators.  Just like a modern-day squid. 

Eventually the world slowly began to recognize the value of all Mary's works.  When the King of Saxony came to visit her home town, he visited her shop to look at the fossils they'd heard so much about. As she reportedly told his personal physician while purchasing some of her fossils, "I am well known throughout the whole of Europe."  She also had a few fossils named after herself, the Acrodus anningiae  and Belenostomus anningiae ifish.  But while the Royal Societies had paid small amounts for her discoveries and might even place her name on the skeleton when mounting them in the museum collections, this was tiny compared to the amount being made off of her work.  Only after much turmoil and many years of waiting, two prominent scientists did provide some repayment for her trouble.  One, fossil collector and retired British officer Thomas Birch, sold off nearly his entire fossil collection with the proceeds going straight to Mary.  Another, famed paleontologist William Buckland, arranged for Mary to receive an annual Civil List Pension of 25 pounds per year from the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Not a princely sum but enough to keep the family comfortable in their later years.

As always her recognition would not come until later in life, and even then her fame did not last long.  Sadly she is more often remembered today as the purported inspiration for the tongue-twister "She sells sea shells by the sea shore." Given the very real contributions she made as a scientist when her age, rank, and gender would normally not let her, we hope these books keep her well known for her more illustrious achievements.   And we will always have her legacy.
There is no question that the fossil-hunting craze that started when Mary was alive is still going strong today. Every weekend, hordes of fossil hunters flock to the cliffs of Southern England, a 95-mile stretch of shoreline now called the Jurassic Coast that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. When a huge landslip occurred late in the evening of May 6, 2008 -- the worst in 100 years, destroying 1,300 feet of coast, crowds of fossil hunters gathered at the scene, just as Mary and William Buckland and so many others had nearly two centuries ago. And, like Mary, they were all looking for something special hidden amid fallen boulders, uprooted trees, and mounds of earth.

Sometimes fossil hunters risk their personal safety in their constant hope to make the discovery of a lifetime. Like Mary, they never give up.

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