THERE has been a revolution in the study of dinosaurs over the past 30 years. The perception of them as cumbersome, leathery beasts destined for dispatch by a falling comet has long since disappeared. They are now seen as creatures of startling variety — many species had feathers — and which endured for millions of years longer than the tiny span that humanity has yet achieved.
Researchers have been able to work out how they moved, what they ate, and even how some of them lived socially. Hadrosaurs (which were more than 20 ft long) nested in colonies like modern birds. We are certain now that dinosaurs have not been lost to us after all, but are merely hiding in plain sight. We entice them into our gardens, and we have a Royal Society dedicated to their protection.
The original revolution in the scientific understanding of prehistoric reptiles began two centuries ago, and one remarkable woman played a crucial part: Mary Anning. Tracy Chevalier’s 2009 novel Remarkable Creatures was built around Anning’s life, and a campaign to erect a statue in her honour in her native Lyme Regis has just begun; but she remains a shadowy figure.
Mary’s parents, Richard and Molly, moved to Lyme Regis from Colyton near by in 1793, probably because — in the harsh economic times exacerbated by the war with France — it seemed to offer more opportunities to make a living. A new turnpike had opened up Lyme to the outside world in 1759, and the fashion for sea bathing had begun to draw visitors.
Now that the Continent was closed to travellers, people of means began to head to Lyme Regis for amusement. Jane Austen visited in 1803, famously drawing inspiration for her novel Persuasion from the dramatic setting. She also wrote a letter complaining about the sharp practice of a certain cabinet-maker who, she believed, had grossly over-quoted for a minor furniture repair: Richard Anning.
Anning supplemented his low wages by scavenging along the dangerously fragile coastline for “curiosities”: strange stone objects then held to have magical and healing properties, or to be collectible oddities, but which we now know to be prehistoric creatures, or fragments of them — and selling them to travellers.
Ammonites were referred to in Dorset as “snakestones”, and the vertebrae of sea reptiles were known as “verteberries”.
From a very early age, Mary and her brother Joseph accompanied their father on his expeditions; after his death from consumption, in 1810, they suddenly became even more dependent on anything that they could find and sell.
Mary was only 12 when she brought to light the whole skeleton of an ichthyosaur: an extraordinary creature that combined crocodilian and fish-like characteristics. The £23 that the lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid to add it to his collection temporarily alleviated the family from chronic poverty, but it also came to the attention of the men of the new sciences of geology and palaeontology.
It is easy to read Mary’s story as one of happenstance. Without doubt, she was in the right place at the right time. That area of Dorset — now known as the Jurassic coast — was the perfect place to be when people were beginning truly to comprehend, for the first time, the nature of the deep past.
Only seven years earlier, James Parkinson (best-known to posterity for the disease named after him) had produced what is usually considered to be the first modern scientific account of the nature of fossils; and two clergymen scholars, William Buckland and William Conybeare, who were dedicated to the new sciences, were poised to utilise Mary’s discovery to develop their favoured disciplines and raise their public profile: Conybeare produced the first detailed and conclusive scientific paper on Mary’s ichthyosaur, demonstrating that it was a creature new to nature.
MARY’s contribution, however, was not limited to this one lucky strike. The 12-year-old, working-class girl who unearthed this astonishing 17-ft-long “curiosity” made many more discoveries in the years to come, and went on to be a crucial participant in the scientific breakthroughs that followed. She not only became an expert finder and excavator of fossils, but also developed a great gift for reconstructing with anatomical precision the creatures to which they belonged. She was also involved in answering the intellectual riddles posed by the new discoveries.
Her association with William Buckland was a long one. He first came to visit her when she was 16, and from then on accompanied her on numerous fossil-hunting excursions. Buckland is, justly, rarely mentioned without the epithet “eccentric” attached to him, owing to such practices as keeping a captive hyena in his Oxford University quarters, and allegedly being able to identify wherever he was in England simply by smelling the soil, but he was a genuine pioneer.
One mystery that he needed Mary’s help to unravel was that of the strange “bezoar” stones (their name derives from their similarity to the gallstones of a type of goat) that kept turning up near, or inside, the skeletons of further ichthyosaur discoveries. Buckland eventually conceded that Mary had provided the obvious explanation: these were animal faeces, and, in 1828, he christened them coprolites. This was a breakthrough, as it proved that the fossils had once lived.
In 1823, Mary discovered the world’s first plesiosaur. Conybeare and others had conjectured, on the basis of other bone fragments, that there was another primordial creature waiting to be discovered, but the animal that Mary disinterred was so peculiar that many people, led by the leading anatomist and palaeontologist of the day, George Cuvier, insisted that it must be a fake. No living creature had a neck as long as its body and tail combined, and none possessed anything like the 35 neck vertebrae that, Mary insisted, were present in this new creature.
Mary won the argument, and a new beast was admitted to the growing pantheon of prehistoric animals.
She made many more fossil discoveries over the years to come, and we can glimpse her continuing influence on the leading scientific figures of the day, until her death from breast cancer in 1847. She led Louis Agassiz, the pioneer of glacial theory, and Richard Owen — who coined the name “dinosaur” and later was a critic of Darwin — on fossil-hunting expeditions. She even made observations on coastal erosion for Charles Lyell.
LIKE almost everyone else involved in those scientific breakthroughs, Mary was a person of faith. She ended her days as a member of the congregation at St Michael’s, Lyme Regis, although she began her life accompanying her parents to the Dissenting Chapel.
It was at the Sunday school there that she probably learned to read and write, and there are clues to suggest that the open intellectual atmosphere there helped to form her own enquiring intelligence: the 1801 edition of the magazine The Congregationalist, passed on to her by her brother, contained one article advocating the accuracy of the creation story in Genesis alongside another urging the practice of geology — and yet another taking a radical line on the abolition of the death penalty. Although we have plenty of evidence of the depth of Mary’s faith, there is very little to support the idea that the new discoveries undermined it.
Mary’s commonplace book, written when she was in her forties, survives, and provides a window into her inner life. There we find prayers and poems that hint at the grief that she experienced on the death of her mother, and her own emotional disappointments; but we can also see how her faith gave her consolation and resilience.
One revealing but anonymous quotation that she recorded brought together her confidence in her faith and her own scientific achievements. Considering the steadfast part played by women throughout Christ’s life as witness to the resurrection, it concludes: “Say then shall woman sink beneath the scorn of haughty man? No, let her claim, the hand of fellowship.”
The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, and Area Dean of Wandsworth, in south London.