Monday, March 1, 2010

Victorian Rambles in Search of Fossils

The 19th century was the heyday for amateur and scientific exploration of the Natural World. Enthusiastic hunters and gatherers set out in search of new species and rare specimens of ferns, sea moss, feathers, birds’ eggs, and fossils.

Among these was the Victorian naturalist Mary Anning (1799-1847 or 1850) of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England. You might not have heard of her. But this is not surprising, for even in her own time, Mary’s fossil discoveries were attributed to others. But, according to the Natural History Museum (UK), she was “the greatest fossil hunter ever known.” In fact, the Museum’s list of eminent Natural History biographies includes only two women, and Mary is one of them. On this list, she keeps company with the likes of Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, Gilbert White, and Carl Linnaeus.

A life-long resident of Lyme Regis, Mary was the product of a working class home, and was introduced to fossilling by her father. This does not mean her life was without adventure. She survived being struck by lightening at age 15 months, and later in life, being buried in a landslide.

It was while exploring the Blue Lias geological cliff formations between Lyme and Charmouth, that she made her exciting finds - Ichthyosaurus, Pterodactylus, Plesiosaurus, as well as Ammonites (for which the area is known) and fossil fish.

At first, she set up a stall at the seafront, and sold her ‘curies’ (fossils) to tourists. Later, she opened a proper shop front, and also sold to wealthy collectors, scientific societies and museums. Many of the prominent scientists of the day visited her in Lyme Regis, including Henry De La Beche, William Buckland and the Rev. Conybeare.

This is the most famous portrait of Mary. She is holding a tool for digging, and her bag for collecting - on the ground at her feet is an ammonite fossil, and her little dog Tray, who accompanied her on excursions. (Alas, dear Tray died in a landslide. Mary died of breast cancer in 1847 or 1850.)

The story of Mary’s life, as well as that of her enduring friendship with another local resident and fellow fossil hunter, Miss Elizabeth Philpot, is recounted in Tracy Chevalier’s delightful new book “Remarkable Creatures”.

If you visit Lyme Regis, you will find reminders of both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot everywhere: The Cob (the impressive sea wall at the town's harbor); The Three Cups Inn (Unfortunately now closed, but where we stayed many years ago); the beach and cliffs where you can even make a guided fossil expedition;

and The Philpot Museum. The interior of the Museum resembles a nautilus shell, and contains many mementos of Mary (including her digging tool), and numerous geological treasures.

You may also recognize Lyme Regis as a setting in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, and John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. In fact, novelist Fowles (1926-2005), a longtime resident, was at one time the curator of The Philpot Museum. After our visit to Lyme some years ago, I joined the Friends of the Museum, and each year received reports of the Museum’s activities, which included a Curator's report written by Fowles himself.

Lastly, it is interesting to note, that the tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore” is said to have been inspired by the same Mary Anning.

Here in the California resort community of Carmel we have “Abalone Joe”. With his long white hair, bushy beard, and ruddy complexion, Joe can be found most weekends peddling his ocean souvenirs (single and nested Abalone shells of all sizes) to the tourists who promenade up and down swanky Ocean Avenue. ”Joe” acquires his shells from an abalone farm up North, then cleans and polishes them with mineral oil. According to local legend he travels up and down the Pacific Coast from Oregon to Southern California selling his wares. A modern-day Mary Anning; “He sells seashells by the seashore!”

"Per Ampliora Ad Altiora" (Through Breadth to Depth),

P.S. The bookplate at the beginning of this post belonged to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894). He was a noted American physician, professor, author, poet and the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a US Supreme Court Justice. His poem, "The Chambered Nautilus" and his bookplate reflect a deep interest in natural history.


  1. Really fascinating, Marjorie. She was a very brave and adventurous woman for the time in which she lived. Lyme Regis is a lovely part of the British Isles and I have been there many times. It is very famous for an area rich in fossils. I think that I will get the book 'Remarkable Creatures. It looks an interesting read. XXXX

  2. Marjorie dearest, this was a fabulous post; it made me want to go back in time when I would visit the museums of natural science in Los Angeles with my parents and be totally enraptured by the gigantic proportions of those mysterious fossils! Funny how you mature; I am feeling like a child again, wanting to revisit some of the things that I may have overlooked and couldn't understand! Thank you for taking me there again my dear. Anita

  3. What an excellent post. I would have liked Mary very much. I've made a note of the novel and I'm looking forward to picking it up. Thanks, Marjorie.


  4. Marjorie, Thank you for the amazing post, it was fun to read, and that book plate is stunning!

  5. Hi Marjorie
    Another interesting post!! The book sounds fascinating I might have to add to my collection... Isn't it interesting how a saying ie.. 'She Sells... becomes more well known than it's namesake.. although hopefully the book may change that.. Have a lovely week.. xx Julie

  6. “Remarkable Creatures” is a book that's in my files for a future post! I believe it is going to be a movie, just like Girl with a Pearl Earring. Lyme Regis seems to be such a neat old town too.

  7. Thank you my friend for your heartfelt prayer.



  8. Fascinating...and so romantic. Three cups Inn and Lyme Regis sound like they are full of stories.

    Thank you!

  9. A very interesting post!I 'm glad to meet Mary.Congratulations for reviving her!

  10. What a fascinating post, thank you for sharing all your knowledge. It's all very impressive.

    On our little partnership, I hope you still feel like doing it. Please e-mail me so we can "talk".

    Merci, ma chere.

  11. I love your posts... so unusual.. and i always learn something wonderful with fabulous images!