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This article is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Pictures from a Library

Pictures from the Rylands Library
41: ‘Mementos of a Curiosity’: The Fossil Poetry of Mary Anning
Stella Halkyard
Section of the Coast of Dorset

ACCORDING TO Carlo Ginzburg, ‘the hunter was the first ‘to tell a story’, because ‘he alone is able to read, in the silent, nearly imperceptible tracks left by his prey, a coherent sequence of events’.  But hunter-storytellers are often times as likely to be ‘she’ as ‘he’. And sometimes it is hunter herself who is the story, as in the example of Mary Anning, told here.

Born in 1799, Mary Anning’s reputation as a finder of fossils earned her the title of the Princess of Palaeontology. As a small child she and her brother Joseph would accompany their father Richard on his expeditions along the friable Jurassic coastline. At this time tourism was booming in the town of Lyme in Dorset and visitors clamoured for specimens of ‘serpents’ (ammonites), ‘fish-lizards’ (ichthyosaurs) and other ‘valuable relics of a former world’ (George Cumberland) as souvenirs of their stay. The fossil-hunting forays of the Annings, when they were ‘at the continual risk of being crushed by the hanging cliffs of Lyme’ (Cumberland), were carried out to supplement their impoverished income. They also fuelled Mary’s imagination as she underwent her apprenticeship, geological hammer in hand, to become the means by which her family earned a living after her father’s early death in 1810.

Mary was in the right place at the right time. Her discoveries coincided with the emergence of the new science of geology as its empirical focus on the study of rocks began to challenge prevailing ...

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