We weren’t taking just a walk along the beach – we wanted to search for fossils. The area is called the Jurassic Coast for a reason – it’s shores are actually seabeds from the Jurassic, the time of the dinosaurs. A quick look at the museum or in the numerous fossil shops show the range of creatures to be found. The most impressive of those is the ichthyosaur, a marine dinosaur that’s the shape of a dolphin.
Lyme Regis is the first place that it was discovered, back in the early 1800’s, by an extraordinary lady called Mary Anning.
Mary’s story is a fascinating one. I first became acquainted with it while reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures. She wasn’t an Oxbridge professor, but a working-class woman. Her father was a carpenter and sold fossils to tourists. The family lived on the site of the current Lyme Regis museum, right by the sea.
Mary became proficient at an early age in finding these fossils on the beaches of Lyme. When she was just twelve, Mary and her brother found their first ichthyosaur, intact, in the nearby cliffs. As Mary grew older and found more of these extraordinary creatures, Mary, and other scientists of the day who studied it, began to question their belief that God made the earth and all its creatures in seven days. Surely something that was encased in rock, that seemed to have no equivalent in the contemporary world, would have walked the earth thousands of years before us, not merely six?
This kind of thinking was dangerous of course, and it made Mary a renegade and outsider all her life. She was rarely acknowledged even as the source of the specimens, even though she led many scientists and visitors along the beach. Despite this, she continued with her work, finding other ichthyosaurs and other dinosaur species in the process. Her contribution to the science of paleontology may not have been acknowledged in her lifetime, but in the 21st Century she is an icon, and a source of inspiration to me.
Next, we’ll follow in Mary’s footsteps and see if we can find any fossils.