Who is Mary Anning, the woman who inspired the Ammonite movie?

This week at the Toronto Film Festival a film will be having its long-awaited premiere, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Ammonite, as it is called, is inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning (the subject of my virtual tours recently). It does not just represent a 19th-century love story set on the beautiful Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site of England stretching from Devon in the west to Dorset (you can know more about this fantastic region here). It also brings to our attention a woman who was a great scientist, who made pioneering discoveries about the ancient life that once inhabited our planet over 180 million years ago in the Jurassic Period. She achieved this at a time when she could never have become a professional scientist because of her gender, religion and social class.

In fact, you might have known Mary all your life as “She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore”. The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure, except they are in fact fossils! The reason for her apparent success was that palaeontology is still a science where anyone can become a fossil hunter or expert of the rocks of their local area. While Mary could master the art of collecting fossils from the cliffs close to her home town of Lyme Regis, she could both sell her findings as souvenirs to rich tourists and then go on to discover more fossils that would change the way we view of the Jurassic and the history of life on Earth forever.

Although she never travelled to London, her discoveries instead would make that journey to the capital. We put together some tips so that you can tour London and see these fossils for yourself.


Following the fossil trail at London

We start our journey at the heart of London’s West End. Piccadilly is street better known for its hotels, afternoon teas and luxury shopping in its arcades. However, at the heart of Piccadilly, we have Burlington House, home to Geological Society of London. Its scientific apartments are open to the public by appointment, and as you enter them you come face to face with a painting of Mary, with her distinctive bonnet with red ribbons, holding a hammer and pointing to an ammonite and her trusty dog Tray who tragically died on one of her fossil collecting expeditions.  Despite being here, pride of place at the entrance, she could never be a member of this prestigious society – even though in the lecture theatre at the heart of the building the scientists of the day would have mentioned her name and the remarkable fossils that she discovered.

Painting of Mary Anning with her dog, Tray. Photo by Aaron Hunter

One such discovery can be found under the painting the “Stone Crocodile” which we now call the Fish Lizard or Ichthyosaur. To discover more, we must go o what was the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (and if you want to be guided while time-travelling through the ages, you can join me in one of my virtual tours). Within this magnificent building, London’s Cathedral of Nature, is the Marine Reptile Gallery. Mounted on the walls like paintings, it is one of the best collections in the world of Marine Reptile or Sea Dragons. Although distantly related to dinosaurs, they are a distinct group. It is here that we can see the Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, and Pliosaurs, many which of the actual fossils she collected. It’s hard to imagine that these animals would have swam around and hunted in the shallow oceans of England almost 180 million years ago.

Natural History Museum. Photo by Clarissa Donda

Plesiosaurs (with a long neck) and Pliosaurs (with a short neck) look rather like what we think the Loch Ness Monster should look like, while Ichthyosaurs look like a cross between a shark and a dolphin (although they are related to neither).  One curious feature about Ichthyosaurs is that they were like a type of lizard (and therefore should lay eggs as any reptile), but as they were living at sea, laying eggs was not possible. Instead, they gave birth to live young at sea just as dolphins do today. Many of the specimens in the marine reptile gallery are actually pregnant with up to seven babies preserved in the fossil remains of the mother. Before we leave the museum, don’t forget to go to the first floor of the museum where you will find the remains of the first Pterosaur or Pterodactyl.  When Mary discovered many of these fossils, they took the scientific world by storm.

Dinosaurs at the Lyme Regis Museum. Photo by Aaron Hunter

Just a few years after her death, in 1853, in Crystal Palace Park, south-east London (the subject of my virtual tour for London’s Open House at Sunday 27th), opened the world first ‘Jurassic Park’ featuring concrete models of prehistoric creatures new to science. One of the islands has concrete models of Marys Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaur painted grey to represent the mudrocks that these fossils were extracted from. These are joined by giant models of the first Dinosaurs, Megalosaurus and Iguanodon.

Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park. Photo by Aaron Hunter

Although Mary found Sea Dragons, she never discovered a Dinosaur. Just a few years after her death a quarry owner found a series of bones from near Charmouth not far from Lyme Regis. These would eventually end up in the hands of Professor Richard Owen, the man widely credited in founding the British Museum (again, today’s Natural History Museum). He identified these as belonging to the Dinosaur Scelidosaurus. And in 2000 the fossil hunter David Sole – perhaps the modern version of Mary Anning – discovered a complete skeleton of Scelidosaurus now on display in Bristol City Museum which remains to this day the most complete skeleton of any Dinosaur collected in the UK.

“The skeleton of an Ichthyosaur from near Lyme Regis, Dorset. We sometimes find the remains of ichthyosaur babies or stomach contents in the cavity.” Photo by Aaron Hunter

Mary’s legacy was not only the amazing fossils she discovered but that the fossil hunters of today can still make a difference and make mind-blowing discoveries. One place we can see this today is The Etches Collection, Museum of Jurassic Marine Life at Purbeck, Dorset. Here Palaeontologist and Fossil hunter Steve Etches displays his lifetimes work, just like Mary has personally collected over 2,000 fossil specimen that allows us to bring to life the stories of the creatures that existed in the Kimmeridgian age (younger than Mary rocks at 155 million years) through the use of fossil displays and projected CGIs. From yet more Marine reptiles, and fish to eggs of Ammonites.

Blue Badge guide Aaron Hunter on a tour at the Natural History Museum in London. Image: Aaron Hunter

One of the great things about Palaeontology is that some of the greatest discovers are yet to come even here in England. In London and the Jurassic coast, Mary Anning’s legacy lives with many more Jurassic stories waiting to be told.

Featured image: Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche, public domain

About the Author:

Dr Aaron Hunter is a scientist with the University of Cambridge and a qualified Blue Badge Guide for London. He is a Palaeontologist who gained his PhD from the University of London on the Jurassic rocks and fossils of Bath, the Cotswolds and the Jurassic Coast. He very much likes guiding all ages but especially families and specializes in guiding the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, and the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.