BBC History Revealed
THE WOMAN WHO HUNTED DINOSAURS
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?
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