Dragons & Snakestones
Mary Anning, born 1799, was a fossil hunter and palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in the UK. Her discoveries and insights contributed to the identification and classification of a wide range of prehistoric life and changed scientific understanding of the history of the Earth.
As a woman born to a poor family, she was denied fellowship of the scientific communities of the day, her work often credited to the men that dominated the field. Writing in ‘The Geological Curator’ in 1985, whilst ‘computerising’ the Sedgwick Museum Catalogue the previous year, David Price discusses his findings:
‘I was busy generating a computer listing of all known collectors, donors and vendors of museum specimens and selectively cross-checking it with manual catalogue entries and old specimen labels. One name which did not appear on this computer-generated list was that of the celebrated Lyme Regis collector Mary Anning. At the time this was something of a disappointment.
My attention had only just been drawn to the existence of several letters written from Anning to Adam Sedgwick in the 1830s and early 1840s which both offered some specimens for sale and indicated that others had, indeed already been purchased. These specimens I had hoped to identify. The absence of Anning’s name was not, moreover, a feature merely of the computer list. Subsequent checking showed that there was no reference at all to Mary Anning either in the manual catalogue or on any Sedgwick specimen labels.’
In recent years her story has become well-known, particularly around the broader historic social injustices that her case highlights, yet information and evidence about her is fragmentary. The handful of letters and notebooks which survive reveal the extent of her knowledge, give glimpses into her state of mind, and act as a stark reminder of her poverty and relentless, solitudinous labour.
Today she is acknowledged in the museums and collections that hold her work, though often credited as a collector, rather than as the field palaeontologist and scientific thinker that she was. Throughout her life, she leaves us written evidence of the connections she made, questioning established thought of the time. In a letter written in 1844 – fifteen years before the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ – she anticipated the fundamental basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
As I made this work, I was able to spend considerable time alone with some of the fossils just as Mary had. This allowed me to find a way of photographing them that helped me better understand the processes she went through. I looked closely for areas that I felt would have interested her, details she would have noticed as she sat for days and hours, her trained eyes scanning their moonlike surfaces as she cleaned and prepared them for sale. Later, as I sat in the lab cleaning the dust from the negatives, I felt a connection to her, an encounter in a visual space we had both occupied. I began looking for traces she left in this space. On the fossils I saw marks from her tools; on her drawings, correspondence and notebooks I looked to the movement of her pen on the surface of the paper. Here, in this evidence of her thinking, were the intimate, physical marks left behind by a remarkable woman.