Victorians loved their curiosities.
They were particularly fond of taxidermied animals – in fact, many of the displays we see in natural history museums are artifacts of pre-PETA days when animals were stuffed and collected as a hobby.
Amateur taxidermist Walter Potter, however, took the cake. In a peculiar blending of Victorian whimsy and Victorian fascination with death, Potter created tableaus with his handiwork:
Bunnies hard at work writing their school lessons.
Kittens at a proper tea party.
And of course, a cat wedding.
Victorians also loved to collect objects from nature. They called these prizes “curiosities”. They often displayed their curiosities in a cabinet (the “curio cabinet”) or in a special room in their home.
Lyme Regis, a seaside resort in Dorset county in England was a favorite vacation spot for those with enough money to take a holiday on the coast. In addition to the beauty of limestone and shale cliffs, the area was noted for an abundance of fossils. No one knew exactly how to explain these fossil curiosities, so they made up stories:
- Fossilized vertebrae were called “verteberries” or “crocodile teeth”
- Beautiful ammonites (an extinct mollusk) were called “snakestones” or “serpent stones”
- “Devil’s fingers” or “St. Peter’s fingers” were actually extinct mollusks similar to modern squids.
“Angels’ wings”, “Devil’s toenails”, and more – the Victorians didn’t know what they were, but they loved the mystery and they loved to collect them.
The Bone Girl
Richard Anning was a poor cabinet maker in Lyme Regis. In the endless struggle to keep his family fed, he collected fossils to sell. He set up a little table in front of his shop and sold his curiosities to the vacationers – small fossils and sea shells. Fossil hunting and extracting in the cliffs could be dangerous work, but Anning’s two children often accompanied him as he searched. He even made his little daughter Mary a fossil extractor of her very own. When Mary was only eleven, her father died from consumption following a fall from a cliff. The little family edged closer to destitution.
Not long after their father’s death, Mary’s brother noticed a skull with a ring of bony plates around the eye socket – they thought it was a crocodile – but in England??
A year later, twelve-year-old Mary returned to the site and found the rest of the creature’s skeleton on a cliff high above where the head was found. Young Mary lead a group of men to dig out the skeleton – an almost perfectly preserved seventeen-feet-long reptile. It was not a crocodile: it was a 175 – 200 million-year-old marine reptile, an ichthyosaur (“fish-lizard”).
Scientists in the fledgling fields of geology and paleontology often came to Lyme Regis, but with the discovery of the pristine ichthyosaur fossil, several stars in the fields specifically sought out the teenaged Mary. And there were many more discoveries by Mary over the years: long-necked plesiosaurs (including the first two specimens ever found), more ichthyosaurs, a squid-like cephalopod, an ancient starfish, ancient fish. She even discovered the first pterosaur (a flying reptile) found in Britain.
During the Jurassic geologic period (about 206 – 144 million years ago), the Lyme Regis area was submerged in a vast shallow sea teaming with life, a banquet for large carnivorous marine reptiles and for the pterosaurs living along the shoreline. Mary, who travelled out of Lyme Regis only once in her life, was a smart woman in the just the right place.
The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew
In class-conscious Victorian England, she was poor. She was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. She had little formal education. Because she sold her finds to museums and collectors, she was considered “in trade”. Mary was religious and deeply faith-filled, but she belonged for most of her life to a “Dissenters” church – not the respectable Church of England. She never married, but she supported her mother and was devoted to her little dog, her fossil-hunting companion. To her sorrow, the little dog was killed in a rock slide which narrowly missed Mary.
And she worked in a field unheard of for women: science.
Although Mary had little formal schooling, she was far from uneducated. She read and educated herself in her field – particularly comparative anatomy. She was respected by the early leaders in the field of paleontology. These geologists and paleontologists and collectors regularly acknowledged her work, but never named the finds for Mary. Late in her life, a Swiss paleontologist named a fossil fish for her, but during her lifetime, no British collector bestowed this honor.
In 1835, the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded her a modest lifetime annuity in recognition of her work – remarkable for the time, since women were not expected to be highly educated, much less scientists.
Mary died twelve years later at age 47 from breast cancer.
There is a breathtaking sun-drenched gallery hall with high, large windows in the Natural History Museum in London. Both sides of the hall are filled, floor to ceiling, with fossilized marine reptiles found in England: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and more. On the plaques of some the finest fossils in the gallery, you’ll see the name “Mary Anning”, time and time again. Some days, a museum docent dresses as Mary and interacts with museum visitors.
Have you heard of Mary Anning? Probably not. But I’m sure you’ve heard this:
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
This children’s tongue twister was written about Mary Anning!
Mary stood at a much more profound crossroad of science than she could have fathomed.
Scientists of Mary Anning’s day really could not comprehend deep time. Geology was a new field – naturalists were just beginning to understand the forces that shaped the planet. Paleontology was even newer: when Mary was born, dinosaurs had not yet been found. Dinosaurs were not identified as a group and named Dinosauria until just a few years before Mary’s death.
A few naturalists considered the possibility that life had changed over time, but there was no way to frame such changes given the age the earth was assumed to be.
Here’s more perspective: Mary lived, worked, and died before Charles Darwin burst onto the scene. Although she and Charles Darwin were contemporaries, Darwin did not publish Origin of Species until 10 years after Mary’s death. Mary found her first ichthyosaur twenty years before Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his game-changing round-the-world voyage.
Pretty little seashells on a table in front of a curiosity shop threatened no one. Small fossilized marine animals were curious – but weren’t terribly threatening. Victorians loved them and the mystery: were they medicinal? Were they sinners turned to stone?
But giant fossilized marine reptiles buried deep in the rock were threatening.
These creatures indicated that the earth was much older than anyone had imagined and that life on earth had been very, very different in the past. As Mary found specimen after specimen, the challenges to existing beliefs about creation and the meaning of the Genesis stories grew stronger. It was unavoidable: time was unfathomably deep. Life on earth had changed. Victorians loved the fossil curiosities, but could no longer ignore the implications.
This is the only portrait of Mary we have – Mary on the coast of Lyme Regis, extractor in hand, with her little dog and fossil-hunting companion, Tray.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge