The Dinosaur Hunters: Mary Anning's Plesiosaurus

The Dinosaur Hunters: Mary Anning's Plesiosaurus

O n 29 January 1829 Mary Anning came upon a long-necked marine carnivore some 3 ½ metres in length – or at least its fossilised remains. The creature was a Plesiosaurus; Mary Anning was the woman who has been described as the greatest fossil hunter ever known. Her ability to discover, identify and interpret the fossils that were exposed on the coastal rockfaces of her native Dorset (the so-called “Jurassic Coast”) was so remarkable that it was sometimes claimed that she had gained preternatural abilities when she was struck by lightning as an infant. Her skills and intellect made Mary Anning a key figure in early 19th century science, one who played a central part in developing a new understanding of earth’s great antiquity and the wonderful range of life that inhabited the planet before the appearance of the human race.

Some two weeks after her discovery Mary Anning wrote a letter to the Rev. William Buckland, a letter which is newly discovered and now being offered for sale. Buckland is perhaps as much remembered for his avowed desire to eat his way through the animal kingdom (mouse on toast was a particular favourite; moles and bluebottle flies he proclaimed uniquely repulsive) as for his scientific discoveries, but his account of a Megalosaurus was the first scientific description of a dinosaur.

Mary Anning wrote detailing the contents of a box of specimens that she was sending him – mostly coprolites (dinosaur faeces), and fossil ink sacs – but then went on to discuss her Plesiosaurus, remarking that even in its incomplete state, lacking much of its tail, it had a remarkably long spine. Unfortunately, she continued, the sum offered by the Bristol Museum for the skeleton was so paltry that she would probably have to sell it to the French. Anning knew full well that Buckland was in touch with the curator at the British Museum, to whom the skeleton was eventually sold.

With its mixture of acute observation, deep knowledge, multiple references to female friendship, and canny salesmanship, this letter gives voice to Mary Anning. It is also a real rarity. Mary Anning was a working-class woman based in the provinces with no attachment to any prestigious institution and who engaged with natural history on a commercial basis: the scientific establishment had plentiful reasons to diminish her importance. It is only in recent decades that her scientific role has begun to be acknowledged and she is now the subject of several biographies, is on the British school curriculum, and is the subject of a forthcoming biopic (where she is played by Kate Winslet). However, her papers have largely been lost and few letters of hers survive. This is the first such letter that has been offered for auction sale in recent decades, and it is a genuine privilege to gain access to the words and thoughts of one of the great women of science.

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