Tag Archives: mary anning

The Natural History Museum – Part 2

The Natural History Museum is huge, with galleries full of old-school stuffed animals, dinosaur galleries (bones and all), reconstruction of blue whales, as well as enormous displays of minerals, precious gems, and interactive earth sciences exhibits. There were so many galleries in fact that it made my head spin. But given our recent trip to Lyme Regis, and my acquaintance with the story of Mary Anning, it was the marine reptile gallery that I found the most memorable.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

It’s quite a simple gallery really – a light and airy space, it has mounted on its walls complete fossils of marine dinosaurs. In fact, it houses the actual fossils that Mary Anning found in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, 200 years ago.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Here was the head of the first full ichthyosaur fossil that she found with her brother when she was just twelve years old.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

And above it was another ichthyosaur that she found in Lyme Regis. The details are fascinating – the teeth, the ammonites embedded on to the ichthyosaur, showing that the two very different creatues did co-exist 200 million years ago.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

I actually got a bit emotional seeing ‘her’ creatures in the most hallowed natural history museum in Britain, knowing how she struggled to make her mark. It goes to show that Mary Anning’s contribution, although not fully acknowledged in her lifetime, is now celebrated.

Fossil Hunting – Part 3

It was a great day to be wandering along the beach, even if conditions weren’t optimal for fossil hunting. After two weeks of grey skies, the sun was greatly appreciated.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

We headed for the cliffs called the Black Ven. You can see the layers of bedding really clearly – they are interlacing layers of limestone and shale from Jurassic times. It is also very unstable, and as you can see there have been landslides here for eons.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

It was where Mary Anning found quite a few of her specimens. The species we found a lot of were ammonites – they were everywhere! They came in many forms:

Impressions of ammonites in the shale (a sedimentary rock). These were very fragile and aren’t worth keeping, but were pretty nevertheless.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Pyritised ammonites that have been fossilised into pyrite (ie. Fool’s gold). These can be kept!

Fossil hunting in Lyme

More impressions of ammonites, this time in siltstone (also a sedimentary rock, with a grain size in between sandstone and shale).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil hunting in Lyme

There were also impression of leaves.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

And we did find a dinosaur fossil – a limb bone from a marine reptile. It’s surrounded by fossil crinoids (a species we found a lot of in Australia).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Unfortunately, the slab that the fossil was in was big – there was no way we could have slipped it into our suitcase. But we did take back a few ammonites, which are now on display in Sydney.

We’d lost track of time (and so did Paddy, our guide), and when we looked at our watches, three hours had gone by. It was time to head back before the rising tide caught us. But before we leave the beach, and Lyme Regis, we took one last look at the Jurassic Coastline.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil Hunting – Part 2

We were met at the museum by our guide Paddy. Paddy is a paleontologist as well as a guide and has scoured these shores almost daily for many years.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Paddy took us down to East Beach, the stretch of sand between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, where Mary Anning found her best specimens.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

He told us honestly that it wasn’t a good day for collecting fossils. The best days were the really stormy ones, since the best chance of finding something new was when the tide, rain and wind eroded the cliffs. Also, you had a greater chance of finding something when it’s wet, as the fossils had a distinct gleam to them compared to other rocks. Paddy showed us one of his finds on such a day – it was a piece of a dinosaur vertebrae.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Mary Anning was known for going out on blustery days to look for fossils by the cliffs. She almost lost her life several times from being caught in landslides. Indeed, her dog Tray was killed in one. Another thing to look out for is the tides. At one point the beach narrows so much that you can only pass the point two hours on either side of the low tide. Fortunately the tours were done within this period, and we had no problem with getting cut off.

Once Paddy showed us examples of fossils that we might typically encounter (ammonites, belemnites, ‘Devil’s Toe Nail’, and dinosaur vertebrae, among others), we ambled down the beach to seek our ‘fortunes’.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

What did we find?

Fossil Hunting – Part 1

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.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is the first place that it was discovered, back in the early 1800’s, by an extraordinary lady called Mary Anning.

Morning at Lyme Regis

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.

Morning at Lyme Regis

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.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Next, we’ll follow in Mary’s footsteps and see if we can find any fossils.