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Mary Anning: Can You Dig It?

Mary Anning was an English paleontologist from the 1800s, when few women studied science. Even though she faced gender discrimination, Mary kept on digging, discovering important fossils that help tell the story of our planet!

Transcript

You hear that? It’s the wind howling across the beaches of Lyme Regis, a seaside town in southwestern England. The year is 1804, and a little girl named Mary Anning is walking along the cool sand next to her father, and her older brother, Joseph. 

Mary is not like most other girls growing up in early 19th century, England. Instead of staying inside, cooking and cleaning, Mary insists that she belongs outside exploring. She is looking for some of the bony treasures that have been scattered along this sandy shoreline and its surrounding cliffs. They are thought to be the skeletons of ancient creatures that once swam in the ocean, swooped through the air, and thundered across the land.

What WERE these creatures? Where did they come from? And how could they teach us about the history and evolution of our planet? 

Mary was determined to dig in and find some answers, no matter what it took.

I’m Rachel Hurd-Wood. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  On this episode, Mary Anning, a fossil hunter known as “The Princess of Paleontology.”
Mary was born on May 21, 1799 in Dorset, England. Her family was very poor and her parents scrambled to have enough food to put on the table. But they did have a lot of love and a wild curiosity about the world around them.

See, in the early 1800s, everyone, including Mary, had more questions than answers, especially about how the earth and all its creatures were made. Scientists couldn’t really explain much of what happened on this planet before humans arrived or how different species evolved. 

But these beaches outside Mary’s home were full of important clues. Many people came to this area to look for fossils, which are bones, shells, or stones that have imprints in them to tell us more about who lived here long ago. Mary’s dad worked as a carpenter, but he knew how to hunt for these prized fossils. And he taught Mary and her brother Joseph everything he knew.  

Mary loved looking for fossils. As a girl in those days, she soon learned that she wouldn’t get the same opportunities as her brother, like advanced schooling or the ability to own property or vote. But when her father taught her how to dig through the sands carefully and sift through the sediment, she felt excited and inspired. Whenever they found something interesting and were able to sell it, they had more money to buy food. Searching for fossils also fed Mary’s growing love for science. 

From the cliffs of Lyme Regis, the halls of science may have seemed out of reach to Mary. But she was closer than she knew. Mary learned to read and write in Sunday school, and with this knowledge, the world became her study hall. She taught herself anatomy  — that’s the study of the body’s structures – by looking very closely at the fossils she found and figuring out how these creatures moved when they were alive. She also taught herself geology, which is the study of the earth’s structure and history. 

But while Mary was learning and growing, her father was getting weaker and sicker by the day. It soon became clear that he had tuberculosis. Eleven-year-old Mary watched helplessly as coughing fits seized his body on their walks to the beach. He grew tired and thin, and one very sad day, Mary’s father died.

Mary’s family was heartbroken, and more desperate than ever. How would they earn enough money to eat? Mary was only 11, but she decided it was time to turn her fossil-hunting hobby into a full-time job. 

Running a fossil-collecting business as a young girl wasn’t easy. Fossils weren’t going to just pop out of the ground and make themselves known. Mary and Joseph had to keep looking and looking — fossils could be anywhere! 

One day, Joseph stumbled upon what appeared to be a fossilized skull. Twelve-year-old Mary ran over to get a closer look. She traced an outline around the 4-foot skull. But as she chipped away with her small hammer, she discovered this was much more than just a massive skull. She kept working, clearing away sand, rock and soil and then… were those fins? And bony vertebrae? Mary stood back and looked at the outline of all the pieces in the sand. Her heart raced! The skeleton was 17 feet long – when this creature was alive, it could have swallowed her whole! 

As soon as Mary and Joseph got home to share their news, Lyme Regis started buzzing with excitement about their discovery. Mary’s mother was able to sell it and help pay the bills. 

For years after, people argued about the strange skeleton Joseph and Mary had unearthed. No one knew what it was, exactly. It took scientists many years to name Joseph and Mary’s find. They called it  “Ichthyosaurus” and said this giant reptile had lived around 200 million years ago. Then a British surgeon decided to write a series of papers about Ichthyosaurus, which created even more excitement about the ancient bones. But not a single scientist ever said a word about the 12-year-old girl who had made history with her brother when they pulled these artifacts out of the earth. They refused to give Mary credit for her work or her contributions to science. 

The scientific community of men often met to talk about discoveries and ideas, but they never let Mary in the door. She was a young woman and had no formal education or diplomas, so she didn’t exist to them. But Mary was proud to be a self-taught scientist and paleontologist. She knew what she was talking about and she was passionate about getting her hands in the dirt and seeing what she could unearth!

Sometimes her fossil finds were in places that were hard to reach. Sometimes it took months to uncover a single bone! Mary kept setting out with high hopes though, scaling the cliffs overlooking the shore, rocks sliding out from under her feet as she steadied herself. She dug and hammered away at rocks, revealing thousands, maybe even millions of years of natural history. Then, scientists – all men – would buy the fossils Mary discovered and take credit for her hard work and knowledge. 

The way Mary was disregarded made her very angry. Still, she loved being able to provide for her family and was passionate about the work she was doing. She knew she was a great paleontologist and that she was making incredible discoveries!

One day, while Mary was out scavenging with her dog, Tray along the cliffs, something caught her eye. She started digging and excavating. Grain by grain and rock by rock, Mary cleared away the debris that had preserved the skeleton of a 200-million-year-old Plesiosaurus – a sea creature twice the size of a person. After studying each inch of the fossil, Mary realized she’d just discovered the complete skeleton of a marine reptile that lived during the age of dinosaurs! 

This was incredible! It could help explain so much about the history of life on earth. It could help explain how everything and everyone living are part of a continual change known as EVOLUTION.

Mary’s discovery caused quite  a stir in the scientific community. A man named George Cuvier, who was considered to be an expert in paleontology at the time,  didn’t believe that Mary had unearthed an actual relic. In fact, he announced to the world that it wasn’t real. The Geological Society of London called a special meeting to discuss this discovery further — but Mary wasn’t even invited to that! 

In the end — after hours of heated debate — George Cuvier had to admit that he’d been wrong about Mary’s discovery. It was definitely the skeleton of a Plesiosaurus. And it was most certainly a breakthrough in the study of earth’s history and paleontology. 

Finally, Mary Anning was recognized as a pioneer in her field and dacknowledged for her life’s work! 

Today, the places where Mary excavated are well known to the world. Scientists, amateur fossil hunters and adventurers flock to Lyme Regis every year to search for ancient bones. And Mary’s intelligence and dedication are recognized as important contributions — both for the study of fossils and the history of the natural world. 

Mary’s story empowers rebel girls everywhere to commit their hearts and minds to science – just like she did. 

Her discoveries also inspired 10-year-old Evie Swire, who lives near Lyme Regis, to petition her city government to honor Mary’s legacy. And on May 21, 2022, (which would’ve been Mary’s 223rd birthday!) the town of Lyme Regis unveiled a statue to celebrate the great Mary Anning. 

Crowds of townspeople gathered to witness a public honor that was hundreds of years overdue. They cheered as the sheet was pulled away, revealing the bronze statue of Mary, with a fossil in one hand and a hammer in the other. Her dog, Tray, is at her feet looking up, while Mary’s eyes are fixed on the horizon. She is gazing at all the mysteries that lie ahead. She is on her way to her next big discovery.