We almost take fossils for granted now. The sight of a fossil might still be exciting, but we know just what we’re dealing with, and why they’re there. But Patricia Pierce takes us back to a different time, when the word “dinosaur” was yet to be coined, when fossils were much more mysterious finds. What’s more she takes us back to meet a very successful fossil hunter, who discovered several new species, or British firsts, who was an uneducated young woman – someone who therefore had to overcome a huge mountain of prejudice through sheer enthusiasm.
That’s enough to make Mary Anning’s story a delight – and Pierce tells it well, embroidering a little to set the scene, but never going over the top. We are taken into the world of Victorian Lyme Regis, getting a good feel for the place at the time and Mary Anning’s achievements that would put her alongside many of the great names of fossil discovery of the period, though she herself only once left Lyme for a brief visit to London, and never received the accolade arguably due to her – sadly this was pretty well always the way for the people who did the spadework at the time. I shouldn’t give the impression that Mary was just a humble digger, employed by the great and good, though. Self-taught, she had significant expertise as well as an unerring eye for a likely location and tons of location experience that made her opinions more important than many of the armchair theorists of the time. Pierce has done an important job in highlighting Mary’s contribution.
The only thing I’d take issue with is her statement that Mary was “born and bred in lowly circumstances”. While it’s true Mary’s family was not in the “educated classes”, her poor and lowly circumstances were certainly relative. Her family lived in a 3 story house with cellar and bow windows. When she and her brother found their first major fossil (when Mary was 12, the Annings “hired men to dig out the complete skeleton.” Compare these with the living conditions of, say a Lancashire cotton worker, crammed with maybe a dozen others in a two up, two down shack, and this is relative wealth. Mary’s father was a craftsman, not a humble labourer, and they could afford to hire men – this was certainly not a wealthy family, it was a family who had to work for their living, but by 19th century standards, certainly not as lowly as Pierce makes out. I don’t say this to take away from Mary’s achievement – or to knock Pierce’s book – but it is gilding the lily a touch. (Oh, and if we’re being very picky, look out for the page heading where the proof reading process failed to spot this enigmatic heading for one of the pages of notes that sounds like something out of the Da Vinci Code: THE CHAPNOTESTER TITLE… think about it.)
Altogether a fascinating book that reveals a lot about someone who for many is a total unknown in the human backdrop of the discovery of fossils, and the impact that they would have on everything from geology to theology.