Ammonites. Crinoids. Belemnites. All are fossils - things Mary Anning called “curies” (short for curiosities). Mary and her family lived in Lyme Regis, a Dorset coastal town whose cliffs have yielded up thousands and thousands of fossils, and Mary made her living locating those fossils, separating them from their sheltering bluffs and selling them to tourists. She even found ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus skeletons and, thanks to her work, the whole idea of animal evolution was turned upside down. Mary Anning changed the way we look at world history.
Mary Anning was also an unattractive, solitary girl who lived with her family in grinding poverty and was ridiculed by townspeople for her interest in fossils. And, since she lived in the age of Jane Austen (who actually visited Lyme Regis and bargained with Mary’s father for some merchandise), Mary’s womanhood meant that she was not given credit for the discoveries she made or the work she did. Later in her life, she was acknowledged, but in many of her working years, rich and respected men took credit for her effort and her talent.
Then there was Elizabeth Philpot, one of three spinster sisters who moved to Lyme Regis when their brother married and wanted them out of the family home. Elizabeth also became devoted to fossil hunting and, by the end of her life, was known for her collection of fish fossils and her knowledge of same.
Elizabeth, like Mary, was plain, solitary by choice and captivated by lives encased in stone. The two, separated by age and position in society, became friends and supporters of each other’s work. Still, jealousies managed to damage their friendship until Elizabeth chose to go on an adventure which brought Mary back into her life.
Like the objects they collected, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were truly remarkable creatures. In a time where women were expected to know nothing and do little, these two found their passion and were able to become experts at it. Especially for Elizabeth (Mary was always busy trying to keep her family from starving - literally), fossil hunting provided a purpose in life. Elizabeth, looking back on the pre-fossil existence of boredom and inaction for which she had been destined, remarked, “It is so tedious being a lady sometimes.”
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