Goya and Ichthyosaurs; Mary Anning my hero

Last night I saw this on artnet news – restorers at the Musée Castre in Bayonne have authenticated a previously-unknown Goya, Self Portrait with spectacles 1800. It was previously thought to be a copy.


(c) Artnet/Reunion des Musées Nationaux

This is good news, except for the Musée Goya down the road in Castres. Now their version, which was thought to be the original looks like a copy. Not so, they say: the Bayonne painting is a preparatory for theirs. Goya scholars can now fight it out among themselves. We are at least richer by a beautiful self portrait.

It reminded me of some other news in the museum world this week.


Daily Mail/(c) University of Manchester

This ichthyosaur skeleton has been rediscovered in the vaults of the Doncaster Museum and Galleries. It was deposited with them in the 1980s. For some reason, curators decided that it was a plaster cast, and it was forgotten about until Dean Lomax, a visiting palaeontologist, took a closer look at it. He realised that it was a real specimen, and noticed that the limb-bones were different to all other known ichthyosaurs. Seven years of research later and the skeleton has been classified as a new species. The team at the University of Manchester have identified several other examples in museums round the world. The Doncaster skeleton even has the remains of its last meal in its abdomen – the sucker-hooks from squid, showing that it could withstand cold and high pressure diving into the deep ocean to feed.


(c) University of Manchester

Doncaster Museum doesn’t know who donated it thirty years ago, so Lomax has very nobly decided to name it Ichthyosaurus anningae after Mary Anning (1799 – 1847), who hunted for fossils in the Jurassic cliffs around Lyme Regis where Ichthyosaurus anningae was found.

Mary Anning, a distant relative on Dally’s side, was my first hero back when I wanted to be a palaeontologist. I was thinking about her the other day, because hunting for fossils is very like hunting for paintings. At Lyme Regis, fossils weather out of the cliff-face, not bit by bit but in a rapid fall washed out by storms, like the sudden churn of paintings turned up in auction.

Mary Anning and her brother Joseph were trained by their father Richard, who used to supplement his income as a cabinet-maker by selling fossils as curios to summer visitors. Mary was also encouraged by Elizabeth Philpott (1780 – 1856), another fossil-hunter who moved to Lyme Regis with her sisters Mary and Margaret in 1805. When Richard Anning died in 1810, Joseph and Mary continued fossil-hunting on their own. That year Joseph discovered the head of the first ichthyosaur, a 30 foot giant, and Mary found its neck and the rest of its body the following year. The specimen was snapped up by the Natural History Museum.


Ichthyosaurs platyodon (c)Natural History Museum

From then on Mary Anning supported herself and her family by fossil-hunting. Always an outsider, a woman in a man’s world, self-taught among scholars, she became one of the most prolific field palaeontologists of the Nineteenth Century. By her death her discoveries included first complete plesiosaur skeleton, the first winged reptile and further species of ichthyosaur, as well as remarkable details; the fact that corprolites were fossilized dino-dung, and that belemnites had ink sacs like their modern squid relatives. Mary even revived the ink with water so that Elizabeth Philpott would draw belemnite diagrams with it.


Mary Anning’s letter describing her discovery of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus 1823 (c)wikicommons

In 1823 she was profiled by an article in the Bristol Mirror:

‘This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half-suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections…’

The risks were real: in 1833 a rock fall killed her spaniel Tray, who went with her on all her expeditions.

In 1824 Lady Harriet Silvester expresses the contemporary attitude which mingles admiration and amazement. Her account also details Mary’s rigorous scientific method:

‘The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved… It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit and writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in the kingdom.’

It is an encouraging picture,but Mary always regretted being only a partial member of the scientific community, separated by sex and background, and her discoveries were often credited to the middle men she sold her specimens to. She had some loyal friends. The Philpott sisters were friends throughout her life, and Henry de la Beche (1796 – 1855), Director of the Geological Survey, used to fossil-hunt with her when he was on holiday as a boy and remained a supporter; his 1830 watercolour Duria Antiquor ‘Ancient Dorset’ is a reconstruction of animals she discovered, and he had copies of the engraving sold for her benefit. It was a revolutionary illustration – the first time an artist had depicted a scene from what was called ‘deep time.’


(c) Sedgewick Museum University of Cambridge

Mary’s true legacy to science wasn’t officially recognised til her death, when the Geological Society contributed to a memorial window to her in the Church of St Michael the Archangel, Lyme Regis. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens wrote an article about her and the adversities she faced in All the Year Round which ended with the words, ‘The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it,’ and at an early date someone has written ‘The greatest fossilist the world ever knew’ on a letter of Mary’s to the Philpott sisters (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia). Since then, the Natural History Museum has included her among the great names of science, and she is recognised locally and intentionally for her pioneering work; but until now there has been no fossil species has been named after her. Ichthyosaurus anningae is a wonderful tribute. As Dean Lomax says:

‘It is an honour to name a new species, but to name it after someone who is intwined with such an important role in helping to sculpt the science of palaeontology, especially in Britain, is something that I’m very proud of. In fact, one of the specimens in our study was even found by Mary herself. Science is awesome!’


Henry de la Beche, Mary Anning fossil-hunting, illustrated in Dorset County Council’s successful 2000 application for the Jurassic Coast to become a Unesco World Heritage Site

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