Fossils, faith, and the folly of compromise
She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.
Who hasn’t at some time tried twisting their tongue around this cleverly-coined ditty? Few, however, know that its 1908 composition was a calculated effort by British songwriter Terry Sullivan to reintroduce the world to an amazing paleontologist who had died some 60 years previously—Mary Anning.1
Mary’s early years
Mary was born to Molly and Richard Anning in May 1799 in the small English seaside village of Lyme Regis (see map Fig. 1). Weak, sickly, constantly coughing, and not feeding well, Mary at first looked like adding to the toll of Molly’s losses—ill health and poor circumstances meant she eventually lost eight of her ten children.
At just 15 months of age, Mary was being held by one of three women sheltering under a large elm when lightning struck the tree; Mary was the only survivor. From then on, she grew to become robust, energetic, and intensely interested in the world around her.
Mary’s carpenter father was also a keen fossicker. Despite Molly’s protestations at losing her home-help, little Mary became his exceedingly keen apprentice at a very young age. Along with her slightly older brother Joseph, these three could be seen, particularly after rain squalls, braving the dangerous local cliffs and trudging the low-tide shoreline in an effort to extract any exposed fossils and shells. The area became known as England’s Jurassic Coast, famous for its wealth of fossils—many of extinct creatures.
Fossicking was becoming a favourite pastime for the rich and famous but, for the Annings, it helped put food on their plates. On a small table outside their very humble rented lodgings, Richard taught the children how to display their washed and polished wares to attract the attention of the growing tourist trade. He also taught Mary, in particular, how to deal with those of higher social status. Unkempt, unlearned and dressed little better than street beggars, it was important to always be deferential and accommodating to those who stopped to browse, no matter how much snobbishness, or ignorance of fossils/fossicking, was on display.
Mary’s dad died when she was just 11. Her mum fell into a deep depression and Mary found herself struggling to keep house and body together while dealing with her own deep loss. Without her dad, fossicking lost its attraction until, about a year later, she was listening to a heavy overnight storm. She knew this would mean more exposed fossils, if she just had the will to explore. Early the next morning, Mary set off with pick, shovel and rusty bucket, which soon began to fill with a variety of treasures.
Spreading the contents on the shore, her grubby fingers began sorting through the collection. Suddenly, her concentration was broken by a well-dressed woman, gesturing to the spread of fossils and shells and pointing to a particular fossil ammonite (an extinct shellfish group—see later). Mary hesitated briefly; the woman read this as a reluctance to sell and, to Mary’s astonishment, pressed 25 shillings into her hand for the specimen. Mary had made her first independent sale and held in her hand more money than the family had ever seen at any one time (about £70 or $US90 in today’s money). There would be good and plentiful food on the table, for the first time in many months.3 There, on that hostile shoreline, young Mary’s future began to consolidate.
Mary’s most productive years
As the years unfolded, this young woman’s reputation and fame (though not fortune) as a fossil collector and dealer gradually spread beyond local borders. From about 1790, the fledging sciences of geology and palaeontology began a fragile liaison, with geology the dominant partner. In 1839, the President of England’s Geological Society, Rev. William Whewell, described the preceding period as the ‘heroic age of geology’.4 Amateur and professional collectors began beating a path to Mary’s door to discuss her finds and purchase her fossils. Some became firm friends; some felt for her as others took credit for her finds (or simply did not place credit where due); some simply took advantage.
Mary’s back-breaking and dangerous work was often seen as a means towards the ends of others. But not all were so unkind. One vivid account in Emling’s book5 tells of the visit to Lyme Regis, when Mary was 19, of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Birch.
Birch, 56, was a retired officer of the Life Guards. He had come to purchase an almost complete ichthyosaur skeleton just a year before. On this second visit he found the Annings in a state of sore distress and near-destitution, as Molly tearfully explained. This ‘knight in shining armour’ set about arranging the sale of his entire fossil collection at auction in London. All the proceeds, a staggering 400 British pounds (equivalent of some £30,000 [$US40,000] today) were given to the Annings with no strings attached.
Mary was not unattractive (once one got beyond the unkempt persona and basic, handmade clothing), and there were rumours on and off of possible suitors. And it seems she had a secret love, who had a very soft (if platonic) spot for Mary—the noted palaeontologist/geologist Henry De la Beche (1796–1855). He had moved to Lyme as a teenager where he first met the Annings and hunted fossils with Mary and her brother Joseph.6
He and Mary kept in touch, both before and after his failed marriage. In an extraordinary watercolour, beautifully executed, Henry catalogued the best of Mary’s discoveries (Fig. 2). His artwork was a gift for her 30th birthday that kept on giving. Turned into very popular lithographic prints, all proceeds of sale went directly to Mary. It would have unfortunately served to reinforce the idea of an exotic ‘world before people’, foreign to biblical history.7
Mary’s major discoveries
Storms came and went, and rain squalls beat upon the cliff face with regular monotony. These contributed to the occasional landslide—one in 1833 which nearly killed Mary claimed the life of her dog, Tray. Sometimes the fossils uncovered were extraordinary. Henry faithfully recorded in his painting those of most importance to the world of paleontology and geology. Those named below all feature in his painting.
Ichthyosaurus (communis, platydon, vulgaris)
Mary discovered several different types, many within the same genus. It was probably Joseph (Mary’s brother) who really unearthed the first ichthyosaur (‘fish lizard’)—at least the head (c. 1811). Mary discovered the remainder of the skeleton a few months later and continued with these successes over the next decade or two. See Fig. 3.
One notable example was recorded in the Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser on 18 May 1825:
“CURIOUS FOSSIL - Miss Mary Anning has brought to light another antediluvian animal from the West Cliff, at Lyme, about two feet and a half in length, which proves to be the Icthyosaurus Intermedius, and is in a state of great perfection. One very surprising peculiarity is that the remains of the skin, which was covered with small prickles, are visible.”8
‘Antediluvian’ means ‘before the Deluge’, referring to Noah’s Flood. But it came to mean anything ‘prehistoric’. It was likely lost on the newspaper writer that the remarkable preservation of the reptile, even its skin, speaks of rapid burial, consistent with burial in Noah’s Flood.
Plesiosaurus gigantus and macrocephalus
Mary’s next most famous find came in 1823. It had long been thought that there were other extinct sea dwellers yet to be discovered, and Mary’s Plesiosaurus gigantus obliged. Fig. 4 is a drawing by her of that discovery, sent to clergyman (and marine fossil expert) William Conybeare. However, Georges Cuvier (a noted French anatomist) was intent on proving the find a clever sham. In January 1824, a meeting of the Geological Society of London was convened—without Mary in attendance, as was the norm in those gender- and class-discriminatory times. After exhaustive debate, Mary’s find was vindicated, though she was not recognized for it. Her second major plesiosaur find, macrocephalus, came in 1830. Once again, scientific descriptions gave no credit to Mary—crediting instead the specimen’s wealthy purchaser.
This extinct flying reptile was known by a variety of names: Dimorphodon for its two differing forms of teeth; pterosaur; or the more common name pterodactyl (‘winged finger’). At the time, the only similar find was in Germany. When displayed in the British Museum, it was called a ‘flying dragon’. The association with dragon tales could have alerted these early geologists to the fact that these (re)-discoveries were creatures of history, not prehistory— consistent with the Bible.9
1828 began slowly for Mary with few major discoveries. One notable exception midway through the year was Dapedium politum,10 a small fossil fish. In his drawing, Henry De la Beche depicts the little fish about to become dinner for an Ichthyosaurus. Their remains are often found in ichthyosaur stomachs. See Fig. 7.
These beautiful spiral-shaped extinct fossil shells were plentiful in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, the remains of their soft-bodied, squid-like tenants long gone. Ammonites could grow to a metre (3 ft) or more in diameter, and came in an array of colours and designs. Henry’s drawing shows them both swimming and/or resting on the ocean floor. Fig. 8 and Fig. 9.
Almost as well-known as the ammonite, these soft-bodied cephalopods would, like them, have kept predators such as ichthyosaurs well fed. The familiar fossil form (Fig. 10) is only the end part (rostrum—Fig. 11) of its hard, cone-shaped internal shell.
1826 was an auspicious year for the Annings. Mary had managed to save enough to purchase a small cottage large enough for a display window, a one-room shop and a small residential area at the rear. That same year, upon discovering some belemnite fossils, Mary was surprised to find what appeared to be congealed ink in the rear chamber. After a little experimentation, she was able to extract this ink and used it quite successfully for both drawing and letter-writing. See Fig. 6. This discovery was to prove quite a boon for Lyme Regis, with artists seeking out this ‘paint’ for their own creations.
The idea that fossils were vastly older than was indicated by the genealogies in Genesis was already ‘in the ether’, though its full onslaught awaited the publication of Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830. Yet to have usable ink still preserved like this should have made it difficult to believe in the ‘millions of years’ notion, and was strongly consistent with rapid burial in the Genesis Flood.11
Originally, the Lyme Regis locals called another group of odd-shaped, plentiful fossils ‘bezeor stones’ but it was left to Mary Anning to discover that they were fossilized faeces. In 1828 after further research, William Buckland, a geologist contemporary of Mary’s, coined the name ‘coprolite’ (‘dung stone’). See Fig. 12. Mary and William went on to glean from them a clear understanding of the types of food ingested by the sea creatures whose remains were so wonderfully preserved. Cut and polished, coprolites made a beautiful inset array in a table Buckland made for himself. See Fig. 13.
By 1829, discoveries in Lyme Regis were less frequent. But Mary was very proud of one; a small, incomplete fossil of a Squaloraja polyspondyla which Emling describes as, “a fish-eating chimaeroid [from Greek mythology] with a body like an otter’s and a flat tail like a beaver’s.”12 Search though she did, Mary could never find the tail. That honour belonged to the wealthy Philpot sisters who had also taken up residence in Lyme Regis in 1805 (though on the ‘other side of the tracks’) and then became close friends with Mary. Elizabeth Philpot, in particular, spent many long hours fossicking and learning at the hand of Mary Anning. The Philpot sisters became palaeontologists of note, establishing their own museum.13
Mary meets the Murchisons
During this same decade, Mary met many people of influence; none more so than the renowned English geologist Roderick Murchison and his wife Charlotte.14 A strong friendship ensued as Roderick left his wife with Mary for a few weeks to learn to become a dedicated ‘fossilist’. The Murchisons would, in 1828, work their way across Europe on a geological excursion with Scotsman Charles Lyell,15 whose Principles of Geology was to have a profound effect on geological and religious thought—as well as on Darwin.16 This expedition would have failed dramatically were it not for Charlotte’s expertise, learnt from Mary Anning.
Unfortunately, the Murchisons would have likely shared with Mary things gleaned from Lyell, including his uniformitarian belief, which rejected the Genesis history of the Flood in favour of a very old Earth shaped by slow, natural processes. Strongly anti-Bible, Lyell was a deist who rejected the creation account in Genesis, and in his Principles of Geology, he alluded to “a Creative Intelligence”. 17
Mary’s parents were devout Dissenters (later known as Congregationalists)18 who worshipped regularly at their tiny Independent Chapel, and their children attended Sunday school. Unusually for the times, this small group of disenfranchised Anglicans believed in teaching girls (as well as boys) to read and write. And Mary learnt to do both exceedingly well, in addition to her natural drawing ability.
We know Joseph also attended and that he gave Mary probably her most long-held and highly regarded treasure—a copy of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review. Reverend James Wheaton (the Annings’ pastor) had written two articles in it—one insisting that God created in six days and the other urging his readers to embrace a study of the new science of geology—both seen to be entirely compatible.19
Creationist historian of geology Dr Terry Mortenson20 has documented that there were a great many geologists in the first half of the 19th Century who saw geology and Genesis as compatible. To them, as to modern-day creationist geologists, there was no prehistory of death and struggle before the Fall; the fossils being discovered in various strata were clearly laid down by Noah’s Flood. Two of these ‘scriptural geologists’, scientists of note, are discussed on creation.com—George Young and George Fairholme.21 Sadly, their paths never crossed with Mary’s. Those who came into Mary’s life held less scriptural positions; Georges Cuvier, William Buckland, Henry De la Beche, William Conybeare, Adam Sedgwick, and others of similar persuasion. They all feature heavily in Emling’s biography of Mary. Though still holding to an overall Creator, they believed that more than one catastrophic flood had shaped a world they said was much older than the Bible indicated.
Mary had a growing field of such opinions foisted upon her almost daily. Unfortunately, the way in which the ‘experts’ surrounding her interpreted her finds involved a false conflict between ‘facts’ and ‘faith’. To her, God existed, for sure—and He created. But was that in six days just a few thousand years ago? And was there one global Flood—or were there many flood catastrophes—or had the world simply come into being over unimaginable eons of time? Had God made man directly from the dust—or was there a longer process He simply set in motion? The gap between the biblical account of creation and the new geology was becoming an ever-widening chasm in the public mind. We can readily see now why, and how this notion is mistaken. But in Mary’s day, without the advantages of a readily available extensive scientific library and access to every possible opinion, she would have been somewhat at the mercy of the authoritative-seeming people with whom she most interacted.
Lyme Regis had its own Anglican Church, St Michael’s, situated high on a large portion of land. Mary, Joseph and their mum Molly eventually forsook their lowly chapel for these refined heights. Molly died in 1842; Mary died from breast cancer in 1847, and her brother Joseph two years later.
Throughout Mary’s entire working life, and until just before her death, the Geological Society of London failed to give her the credit her work deserved. She was a woman, single, unrefined, ‘uneducated’ and poor, and so her name was rarely mentioned in those hallowed halls. But after William Buckland spoke on her behalf, a fund was raised which helped support Mary through her last months. It also eventually contributed to a stained glass memorial window at St Michael’s in Lyme Regis (Fig. 15). It displays six acts of mercy from the Bible in her honour: “visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, housing the homeless, and visiting orphans. The window was dedicated in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology … her benevolence of heart, and integrity of life.”22
Another of Mary’s contemporaries, the great English novelist Charles Dickens, was editor of a journal that published an unattributed piece about her with many kind and generous words, including: “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it”.23
Mary and creation
One might wish that Mary Anning had stood for the truth of biblical creation, but history indicates otherwise. Emling’s book has many accounts of Mary even seeming to argue against her long-held belief in a biblical, six-day creation. Her discovery (better ‘rediscovery’) of creatures that had been extinct for ‘millennia’, and hence were effectively unknown to science, was likely seen as reinforcing the erroneous idea that they belonged to another world long before people existed.
How many times have we heard or read of scientists having that ‘light-bulb’ experience about creation, realising that what is written in the Word makes sense of what is observed? Sadly, the chief influences in Mary’s life would have worked against such a realisation. Their efforts put this budding science on to a path that would see millions reject the faith altogether.
If only her exposure to geological influences had included the scriptural geologists mentioned! Their abilities in the field were easily the equal of those in Mary’s circle. Her life gave many evidences of obvious Christian commitment. I think the clash between these opposing beliefs about world history must have caused her at least some struggle, perhaps even doubt. What if she had in fact come to see how Genesis history made sense of her many discoveries? We will never know, but I like to think she would have rejoiced.
References and notes
- Emling, S., The Fossil Hunter, Pelgrave Macmillan, USA, 2009—a definitive biography of the life and times of Mary Anning and the source material for much of this article. Return to text.
- Oard, M., Matthews, J., and Sibley, A., The Jurassic Coast: Icon for the Genesis Flood, Creation 38(2):26–29, 2016. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 27–31. Return to text.
- Library of 19th Century Science, The Golden Age of Geology, geology, 19thcenturyscience.org. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 70–73. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 35–36. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 141–142. Return to text.
- Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 18 May 1825, p. 8. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Dinosaurs and dragons: stamping on the legends, Creation 14(3):10–14, 1992; creation.com/dinolegends. Return to text.
- Sometimes the Latin masculine, Dapedius politis. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Fossil squid ink that still writes!, 15 September 2009, creation.com. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 136. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 65–66. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 99–101. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 164–165. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Charles Lyell: the man who tried to rewrite history, Creation 36(4):36–39, 2014; creation.com/charles-lyell. Return to text.
- Ref. 16. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp.13–14. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 26. Return to text.
- Mortenson, T., see Systematic Theology, History of Geology Lecturer/Researcher for a host of articles on this issue. Return to text.
- See George Young (1777–1848), creation.com; and George Fairholme (1789–1846), creation.com. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p.197. Return to text.
- Dickens, C., All the year round, a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens, 13(301):63, January 1865. Return to text.