She was one of the great­est fos­sil hunters in the world, who be­came her own tourist at­trac­tion and was known to kings. Why then, asks Re­becca Wragg Sykes, is Mary An­ning only now get­ting the recog­ni­tion she de­serves?

History Revealed - - MARRY ANNING -

Mary An­ning’s life could eas­ily have been snuffed out just as it was be­gin­ning. As a storm erupted over Lyme Regis, mem­bers of an au­di­ence who had come to en­joy the spec­ta­cle of a trav­el­ling troupe of horse rid­ers took shel­ter un­der a tree. The sky flashed to life as light­ning coursed through the tree and the bod­ies of three women hud­dled be­neath its branches, killing them in­stantly. One of these women was hold­ing her friend’s baby, the in­fant Mary, but some­how the babe in her arms mirac­u­lously sur­vived.

Through­out her life, Mary was quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. At a time when women’s ac­cep­tance by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity was min­i­mal at best, she was a pi­o­neer in the science of palaeon­tol­ogy. Her dis­cov­er­ies were breath-tak­ing, and her ap­proach to un­der­stand­ing the fos­sils she found was bril­liant. She made her great­est dis­cov­er­ies be­fore the word di­nosaur had even been coined to de­scribe the pre­his­toric beasts that roamed Earth mil­lions of years ago. And yet through her work, by the time of her death at the age of just 47, our un­der­stand­ing of this pre­his­toric world was al­ready be­gin­ning to take shape.

To­day, the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum pro­claims her as the “great­est fos­sil hunter”. But what made her so spe­cial? Like palaeon­tol­o­gists strug­gling to re­con­struct en­tire van­ished worlds from stony scraps, sketch­ing her life re­lies on his­tor­i­cal frag­ments.

Born in 1799, An­ning was raised in a poor fam­ily of re­li­gious dis­senters who be­lieved in ed­u­ca­tion. She is known to have read an es­say by her pas­tor urg­ing the study of ge­ol­ogy, but it was her fa­ther Richard who nur­tured her skill in fos­sil hunt­ing. He scoured the beaches and sea­side cliffs for ob­jects to sell, to boost his in­come as a cab­i­net maker.

Sited next to ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich Juras­sic de­posits dat­ing back nearly 200 mil­lion years, Lyme Regis be­came known as a source of stony cu­rios. As a child, Mary helped her fa­ther find, clean and sell these strange

With her ham­mer and beloved dog Tray, Mary An­ning was an ex­tremely pro­lific fos­sil hunter A sketch, with notes, of An­ning’s 1823 find ABOVE RIGHT: Mary An­ning’s dis­cov­er­ies were great strides in palaeon­tol­ogy; the re­mains of fish can be seen in this ichthyosau­r

BE­LOW:Her first ichthyosau­r, ex­ca­vated in 1812, in­spired many il­lus­tra­tions

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