OK, I know that’s a ridiculous headline, as an ichthyosaur was a fish-like reptile with no legs, but I wanted to draw the comparison with the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs and its latest Planet Dinosaur…
There are so many “new” prehistoric creatures these days and I can no longer keep up with all the names. My reference guide as a child in 1969 was Prehistoric Animals by Barry Cox and I could probably still identify 80% of the species illustrated, if I spotted them in the wild. That’s a Stegosaurus and an Ankylosaurus on the cover…
In Mary Anning’s time (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) things were even simpler – and it must have been so exciting, naming the first fossils found.
As of last month, I have now seen Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur fossil in the flesh (if you know what I mean) – but I am so kicking myself because I didn’t take a picture!
I hadn’t realised at the time that the ichthyosaur isn’t usually at Mary’s home-town museum in Lyme Regis, Dorset, but has been brought back from the Natural History Museum in London for a couple of months to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her find – on Mary Anning Day, September 24.
Mary Anning was one of my childhood heroines, largely because I absorbed my early education from an old 10-volume copy of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.
She was only 12 years old when she and her brother Joseph found the fossil ichthyosaur in 1811. Their father Richard, a cabinetmaker who also made money by finding and selling fossils, had died in the previous year.
If she had been an Anglican man she might have become part of the scientific establishment, but she was a woman and her religion was Dissenter. Interestingly one of her prized possessions was a theological magazine containing an essay urging Dissenters to study geology – along with another by the same author insisting that God had created the world in six days.
Mary had a poor but miraculous childhood in which she apparently survived being struck by lightning – but you can read much more about her on Wikipedia or in one of the many books written about her.
When I recently visited Lyme Regis, it was a whistle-stop tour, as usual. We went into the museum and as we turned a rather cramped corner from the entrance into the ground floor of the museum I almost bumped into the case containing the fossil. Wow, I said, Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur! I had a good look at it, to take it all in, especially the big round eye and the hand-written label on it, in ink on paper. But then I moved on.
Only when I returned home did I find that by sheer coincidence I had arrived just a few days after the fossil. The curators’ plan had been to take the ichthyosaur to the top floor of the museum, but they hadn’t been able to get it up the spiral staircase!
I also hadn’t realised until today that Lyme Regis Museum is built on the site where Mary was born and had her fossil shop until 1826. There’s a blue plaque there, which I missed. Sorry, I am a hopeless tourist and really need to do more research in advance!
I do vaguely recall visiting Lyme Regis in the 1970s, with my then boyfriend when we were on a Roman archaeological dig at Poundbury in Dorchester.
On that occasion I remember finding a small, flaky ammonite outlined in fools’ gold, now long crumbled and gone. So I HAVE walked on Mary Anning’s beach. But that was long ago and on this visit we didn’t make it there as the day was such a scorcher.
I still have a few treasured fossils I have picked up elsewhere in my life, though…
I found this lovely slice of bivalve shell of pink quartz crystal in shale in the vicinity of Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire.
Then there is this crinoid, I think, again in shale, picked up below the cliffs on Severn Beach, which my schoolfriend and I reached by walking over the old Severn Bridge from Chepstow one Sunday.
And then there are these “devil’s toenails” – fossil Gryphaea bivalves, picked up on the beach at Atlantic College, St Donats, in the Vale of Glamorgan, at the end of a cliff-top walk from Nash Point along our own small piece of Jurassic Coast.
It’s lovely to know that devil’s toenails abound at Lyme Regis and Mary Anning would have been familiar with these small, common fossils, too.
The Glamorgan Heritage Coast also includes Sully, where famous geologist William Conybeare (7 June 1787 – 12 August 1857) was a rector. He later became Dean of Llandaff and there is a street in Cardiff named after him.
He in turn was a friend and collaborator of Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche (10 February 1796 – 13 April 1855), who was a friend of Mary Anning and painted a famous watercolor called Duria Antiquior, meaning “a more ancient Dorset” and showing the very creatures Mary had discovered. That picture can be seen somewhere among the documents of the National Museum of Wales.
And so we come full circle and I find yet more connections between South Wales and Dorset, my mother’s home county.
I am more of a scavenger than a fossil-hunter. I don’t possess a little rock-hammer. But there are still moments when I can dream of being Mary Anning and on September 24, her special anniversary, I will remember her…