Tag Archives: mary anning

The Lyme Regis Museum – a treasure trove fit for the 21st century

The new geology gallery showing the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons on the left. (courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum)

 

The Lyme Regis Museum reopened last year after a major makeover including the addition of a new wing named after Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter and one of Lyme’s most celebrated citizens.   Mary Anning possessed a unique talent for finding, reconstructing and interpreting fossils in the cliffs of west Dorset and her discoveries transformed the field of geology in the 19th century.  The new Mary Anning Wing has transformed the Museum into one fit for the 21st century.

I remember visiting the Museum some years ago on a bitterly cold mid-December day. I recall a pretty but rather spartan Victorian building crammed with interesting exhibits but very much a museum in the old style.  I returned this January to a completely different experience.  The Museum now has a spacious, welcoming entrance area and shop with natural light flooding through plate glass windows giving spectacular views across Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast.  The important features of the old building such as the beautiful spiral staircase and rotunda are still emphasised but there is a new Fine Foundation Learning Centre and with the installation of a lift, the Museum is accessible to all.

I enjoyed the bright, interesting and well-presented galleries covering the Early History of Lyme, the Cobb and the Sea, the Undercliff, Lyme during the War and the Branch Line Railway. A large display on Literary Lyme features, in particular, the writer John Fowles, who lived in the town and was a great supporter of the Museum acting as Curator for a decade.  Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was famously made into a film putting Lyme on the international map.  Jane Austen also features strongly; she spent holidays in the town and set some of her novel “Persuasion” there.

All this alone is worth the price of admission but, in my opinion, the real jewel in the crown is the new interactive Geology Gallery.  Here the visitor can see fossils similar to those discovered locally in the 19th century that changed the face of geology forever and made Lyme Regis famous around the world.  The Gallery celebrates these discoveries and the people who made them while not forgetting those who continue this quest into the 21st century.

The large, high-ceilinged room is packed with exhibits: many different kinds of fossil, drawings, artefacts and mementoes. There are striking examples of large fossilised creatures on the walls and suspended above are models of these same creatures.  The exhibits are so impressive and so well presented that there is a strong “wow factor” but the interactive displays bring the exhibits to life showing what the fossilised bones mean and what these creatures might have looked like.  It is a gallery for all ages but there is no dumbing down.

Mary Anning (from picture in Lyme Regis Museum)
Mary Anning (from picture in Lyme Regis Museum)

 

As I looked around the Gallery, I felt that even if she wasn’t actually there by my side, Mary Anning “spoke to me” from almost every exhibit.  Her story is outlined in the displays, how she was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to a very poor family, received no formal education but learned from her father the way to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs.  When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother made their first major fossil discovery, an Ichthyosaur, a now extinct “fish-lizard”.  One of the most dramatic objects on display in the Gallery is a partial Ichthyosaur skeleton, about 5 metres long, discovered in 2005 by Paddy Howe, the Museum geologist, similar to the one discovered by Mary Anning. There is also a massive fossilised Ichthyosaur head in one of the cabinets, so we can get a real sense of how exciting it must have been to discover one of these creatures for the first time.  Mary went on to become the greatest fossil hunter ever known, possessing a unique skill and persistence in finding and reassembling fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science.  Among her other unique fossil discoveries were two Plesiosaur skeletons, the first ever found and probably her greatest finds. The Plesiosaur was a small-headed marine reptile with a very long neck and the Gallery contains the skeleton of a juvenile Plesiosaur with a model of the creature hanging above the display.

Despite her lack of formal education and her humble origins, Mary came to be well respected by the leading geologists of the time, Henry de la Beche, William Buckland and William Conybeare, all of whom are described in displays.  These men sought her out in Lyme and befriended her but despite this friendship, they used the fossils she found to further their own reputations and gave her little or no credit.  As a woman in the 19th century, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy.  After she died in 1847, however, Henry de la Beche read a eulogy to the Geological Society dedicated to Mary Anning and her discoveries.  This was an honour usually accorded only to fellows of the Society which did not admit women for another half century.

The new Gallery tells the story of Mary Anning but I feel that her importance is slightly underplayed, especially in relation to the male scientists of the time. Her discoveries were unique, showing that large reptile-like creatures had existed millions of years ago but were now extinct.  These findings challenged existing ideas in geology and questioned contemporary biblical accounts of creation.  They also contributed to changes in thinking that led Charles Darwin to propose theories of evolution by natural selection.   The importance of Mary Anning should not be underestimated and it is surely significant that in 2010 the Royal Society voted her one of the 10 most influential women in science.

I very much enjoyed my visit to the remodelled Lyme Regis Museum with its new Mary Anning Wing.  It is a treasure trove of fascinating displays, a museum fit for the 21st century, and the staff should be congratulated on their achievement.  I urge you to visit, you will not be disappointed.

Lyme Regis Museum
Lyme Regis Museum

 

Spiral staircase, Lyme Regis Museum
Spiral staircase, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Ichthyosaur head in Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Ichthyosaur head in Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Model of Ichthyosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Model of Ichthyosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Model of Plesiosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Model of Plesiosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

This article appeared in the March 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

The picture at the top of this post shows a model of a pterosaur in the Lyme Regis Museum.   Mary Anning found the first skeleton of a pterosaur outside  continental Europe.

The Queen of Seaweeds – the story of Amelia Griffiths, an early 19th century pioneer of marine botany.

In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential female scientists in British History. One of the ten was Mary Anning (1799-1847) who from humble beginnings in Lyme Regis, Dorset came to be recognised as the “greatest fossil hunter ever known”. Her discoveries of long extinct, fossilised creatures in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were central to the development of new ideas about the history of the earth at the start of the 19th century. She became an expert in her field but did not get the recognition she deserved because science at the time was an exclusively male profession. Nowadays she is receiving this recognition and the fascination of her story has spawned biographies, novels and children’s books. The Lyme Regis Museum has well-developed plans to build an extension, to be called the Mary Anning Wing.

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Mary Anning

I had thought that Anning was the only prominent West Country female scientist of her time until, walking along the coast path near Torquay recently, I paused to read an information board. This included a panel dedicated to the work of Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) “who collected and preserved nearly 250 species of seaweed ……. one of the first women to be recognised for their contribution to science.” Never having heard of Griffiths, my interest was piqued, especially when I discovered that, in the 19th century, she was described as “facile Regina – the willingly acknowledged Queen of Algologists”. [Seaweeds are large multicellular marine algae.]

So who was Griffiths and what did she do?

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Part of the information board that alerted me to Amelia Griffiths

Amelia Warren Rogers was born in Pilton, North Devon in 1768. In 1794 she married Rev. William Griffiths and the couple moved to Cornwall. Eight years later, her husband died suddenly under mysterious circumstances leaving his widow with five young children but not without money. Amelia Griffiths decided to leave Cornwall for Devon, living first at Ottery St Mary before settling in Torquay where she could best follow her favourite pursuit of studying seaweeds.

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One of the Torbay coves that Griffiths may have frequented when she lived in Torquay. Plenty of seaweed is still visible.

For much of her adult life she collected seaweeds avidly: in north Devon and Cornwall, in Dorset and along the East and South Devon coasts. When she began, identification of species was difficult as many had not been named or clearly described so Amelia devised her own names – “bottle brush”, “cobweb” etc. She helped male seaweed enthusiasts in producing scholarly studies on the larger and smaller seaweeds, generously giving her knowledge and donating samples. One such enthusiast was the leading botanist William Henry Harvey with whom she corresponded and who eventually became a close friend. Her reputation grew and in 1817, the Swedish botanist Carl Agardh named a genus of red seaweed Griffithsia in her honour.

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Griffithsia setacea from Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Dried samples of seaweeds collected by Griffiths are held in several museums including Kew, Torquay and Exeter. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds three slightly battered leather-bound volumes of her seaweeds which I recently had the privilege to see. Each sample is mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in Griffiths’ neat handwriting. Many of the seaweeds still retain their bright colours despite being collected more than a century and a half ago.

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Enteromorpha intestinalis. Collected in Torbay. The name suggests that early collectors saw the resemblance with the human intestine. From Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Griffiths was often accompanied on her seaweed sorties by Mary Wyatt, formerly a servant in the Griffiths household but eventually the proprietor of a Torquay shop selling shells, polished madrepores and pressed plants. Harvey encouraged Mary Wyatt to sell books of pressed and named seaweeds to help identification. Supervised by Amelia, she produced the first two volumes of Algae Danmonienses (Seaweeds of Devon) by 1833. Each volume contained 50 species and cost 25 shillings or £1 if you subscribed to the series. The books sold well, being partly responsible for making seaweed collecting the must-do pastime at seaside resorts in early Victorian Britain. Followers of this seaweed craze were able to explore nature, improve their scientific knowledge and perhaps produce a memento of their seaside holiday.

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The title page of one of Mary Wyatt’s books of seaweeds with a special Royal dedication. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council.

Despite their extensive correspondence, Harvey and Amelia Griffiths did not meet until 1839 when he visited Torquay. At her urging, he wrote a hand-book of British Marine Algae later expanded to Phycologia Britannica, illustrating all known British Marine Algae. This great work required constant correspondence with Griffiths who despite being in her late 70s provided extensive knowledge of the plants in their natural state. Harvey held her in high regard and his hand-book contained the following dedication: “To Mrs Griffiths of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany….”

The more I investigated the story of Amelia Griffiths, the more I found similarities with Mary Anning. Both were systematic collectors, acquiring immense expertise in their fields and passing on samples to male scientists who furthered their own careers as a result. Both were strong women who pursued their interests whether or not these conformed to norms of society. Griffiths is known to have collected at Lyme Regis so perhaps she encountered Anning on the beach; it is an interesting thought. Anning is now better known, partly because her discoveries were much more significant for science and partly because of the well developed Mary Anning-industry in her home town.

Griffiths lived until nearly 90 maintaining her passion for seaweeds to the end. We must not forget that she began her systematic study of seaweeds in the early years of the 19th century, a time when women could not develop independent scientific careers. Despite this, she made a major contribution to marine botany and deserves to be more widely known.

I should like to thank Holly Morgenroth of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, who showed me Griffiths’ books of seaweeds and took the photographs.

This article first appeared in the August edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the top of this post is of Phycodrys rubens (formerly Delesseria sinuosa) in Griffiths’ books (copyright 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council).

Mary Anning and the men of science

This year sees the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the UK’s “premier league” of scientists.  There has been much going on to celebrate this in London but some attempt has been made to take the celebrations out of the capital.  This has included a programme of regional events around the country called “Local Heroes”, celebrating important figures in science in places they lived or worked.  In Dorset, the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis has extended its permanent Mary Anning exhibition with displays on “Mary Anning and the men of science”.  Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis, was probably the greatest fossil hunter ever known and her finds influenced 19th century theories about geology and evolution.  She interacted with many of the well known geologists of the day although these men mostly took her fossils and failed to credit her.  Visit http://www.lablit.com/article/625 for some background on Mary Anning.

They obviously don’t spend much money on heating at the Philpot museum and when I visited it last Saturday afternoon it was bitterly cold.  Despite this, it was interesting to see the new exhibits.  I particularly liked the brightly coloured models of creatures from ancient Dorset, generated by Dorset artist Darrel Wakelam together with local school children.  This is a re-creation of the watercolour “Duria Antiquior” painted by Henry de la Beche in 1830 where he literally put flesh on the bones of the creatures discovered as fossils by Mary Anning.

 

Duria Antiquior (A more ancient Dorset) (Henry de la Beche, 1830)

Duria Antiquior (A more ancient Dorset) (Darrel Wakelam and school children, 2011, from Philpot museum website)

De la Beche is one of three “men of science” featured in the exhibition along with William Buckland and William Conybeare.   These men were leading geologists of the time and made important advances in this new field.  They visited Mary Anning in Lyme Regis on many occasions and developed friendships with her.  Despite this they failed to credit her with finding fossils they subsequently used in their work and which ended up in museums.  I didn’t think the exhibition brought out this tension between the educated male geologists and the poorly educated but very knowledgeable female fossil expert.

Nevertheless, earlier this year, Mary Anning was named number three in a list of the “most influential British women in the history of science” compiled by the Royal Society (http://royalsociety.org/Most-influential-British-women-in-the-history-of-science/).  After 150 years she is finally getting the credit she deserves.

How we make up history

“History is not what you thought.  It is what you can remember.  All other history defeats itself.”

(from “1066 and all that” (Sellar and Yeatman)). 

I recently wrote about the book “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier expressing my concern that such historical fiction might influence what people remember. In the book, Chevalier invents private lives for two real people, the Lyme Regis based fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  My concern was that, because there is actually very little real knowledge about the lives of these two women, the events fashioned by Chevalier may become reality for some people.

Interestingly, I recently received an email from a Dorset-based fossil expert regarding the article.  He leads walks on the fossil rich coast around Lyme and is now regularly quizzed about the events in the book.  People are beginning to treat the book as fact rather than fiction.

I have reproduced the article in the Marshwood Vale Magazine below.

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Mary Anning – the facts and the fiction

Philip Strange read Tracy Chevalier’s novel “Remarkable Creatures” set in Lyme Regis.

Tracy Chevalier’s novel, “Remarkable Creatures”, was published earlier this year in paperback.  It is set almost entirely in Lyme Regis and provides a fictionalised account of the intertwined lives of two women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  Both women made major contributions to science.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 and learned from her father how to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs.  When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother discovered a large fossil which turned out to be the first example of an Ichthyosaur, a previously undescribed but now extinct creature. Despite having little or no formal education and coming from a poor working class family, she went on to become a leading expert on fossils and discovered several other fossilised skeletons from different creatures, all now extinct.   She was well respected by the leading geologists of the time who sought her out in Lyme and befriended her.  Despite this friendship, these men took the fossils she found to further their own reputations but gave her little or no credit.  As a woman and without formal education, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy. 

Elizabeth Philpot, 19 years older than Mary Anning, was one of three unmarried sisters who moved to Lyme from London in about 1805.  The sisters were from an educated middle class family and their move to Lyme provided a lifestyle more affordable to their brother who had to support them.  The Philpots also collected fossils and amassed a fine collection of fossilised fish, now in the Oxford Natural History Museum.   Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning became friends across the social divide and often went out together searching for fossils.

“Remarkable Creatures” is unashamedly a novel and Chevalier imagines how the two women’s lives might have been.  Both women made important scientific contributions and Chevalier describes these well.  She is, however, keen to imagine what the other aspects of their lives might have been like.  She fleshes out personalities for the two heroines stressing their social and financial differences and showing how they were both outsiders but in different ways.  She also invents a love interest that leads to a schism separating the women for several years.  Chevalier provides us with a good story but the writing is rather flat and would have been improved with some humour.   She also does little to create the atmosphere of life in Lyme in the early 1800’s.  Mary is made to speak with a slightly lower class accent in Chevalier’s account whereas I would have expected her to speak a strong Dorset dialect.  A little more “Ooh Arr” might have brought life to the writing and emphasised the social and educational divide that Mary successfully bridged.

The novel ends with the happy reconciliation of the two women after their rift.  This neglects an important part of the story of Mary Anning.  In her later years she made no big discoveries and interest in fossils had declined.  In 1845, she found she was suffering from breast cancer, and died aged 47, her pain relieved by laudanum.  These events must have provided great emotional turmoil for the two friends and it seems surprising to have omitted them from the novel.

How should we react to fictionalised accounts of real people?  On the one hand, Mary Anning is not widely known so this book will spread the word about Mary Anning and her achievements, which is a good thing.  I worry, however, that readers will think they have read a true account of her life and this book is not that.   In fact we know very little in detail about what Mary Anning’s life was really like and I doubt if it helps establish her significance by providing a fictional account with many imagined events.  As I read the book, eventually I became unsure whether I was reading fact or fiction and that was very distracting. 

One of the more outrageous fictions in the book is the love interest[1].  This concerns Lt Colonel Birch, a fossil collector described by some as a philanthropist.   Mary helped him assemble a fine collection of fossils and in 1820 he sold the collection in a much heralded auction in London giving the proceeds to the impoverished Annings.  This lead to some speculation about a relationship but no evidence exists.  In Chevalier’s story, Mary falls in love with Birch (he 52, she 21) but because of their social differences this is hopeless.   Despite this, Mary decides that Birch will be her 21st birthday present.  The day of her birthday, Birch duly arrives on horseback to carry her away.  She hops up on his horse and together they ride to an orchard he knows.  They find a bed of apple blossom and in shameless symbolism, their tryst results in the crushing of Mary’s bonnet – Thomas Hardy meets Mills and Boon.  There is a film of the novel in preparation so I do hope Colin Firth is available to play Birch. He could even reprise his Mr Darcy wet shirt moment to still a nation’s female hearts once more by taking a dip in Lyme Bay after a hard morning’s fossiling.  

But enough of this silliness! We must focus on the true significance of Mary Anning?  She was the greatest fossil hunter ever known and possessed a unique skill and persistence in finding fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science.  She discovered several new species based on fossils including three complete Ichthyosaurs, two Plesiosaurs, a Pterodactyl and the fossil fish Squaloraja.  These were major discoveries, mostly made before she was 30.  Because she was a lower class woman without formal education she did not receive the credit for this.  A scientist nowadays who exhibits such precocity will be well known and showered with honours. 

Her discoveries also shook the foundations of the scientific and religious establishment of the time.  At the beginning of the 19th century, the prevailing view of the creation of the world was as described in Genesis with calculations of the age of the world suggesting only a few thousand years.  The discovery of creatures that had existed but were now extinct challenged the idea that the living world was simply a replica of the world God had created.  Together with discoveries in geology these observations hinted at events occurring millions of years rather than thousands of years ago.  At the very least a literal reading of the Bible now seemed inappropriate and this was deeply unsettling for some.  Anning’s discoveries also contributed to the changes in thinking that paved the way for Darwin to propose his theories about evolution by natural selection.


[1] A second fictionalised account of the life of Mary Anning appeared earlier this year from Winnipeg-based author Joan Thomas, entitled “Curiosity”.  The book is not available in the UK yet but I understand Thomas uses a different male love interest.