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Dragons &
Snakestones


Text by Sir Crispin Tickell


Almost 200 million years ago the place which is now Lyme was a somewhat muddy sea not far from land. Life was already prolific. At the bottom of the food chain were plankton and such filter feeders as oysters, crinoids and barnacles; a rich variety of cephalopods or marine molluscs, including belemnites and many species of ammonite; and at the top many species of fish and such carnivores and scavengers as big marine or airborne reptiles: ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and pterodactyls. When they died, the remains of these creatures fell to the murky bottom where for lack of oxygen many were preserved, and over millions of years subjected to enormous pressures and in many cases petrification. Today they are found among the geological formations, notably the Blue Lias, which run like fillings in a sandwich exposed in the cliffs along the west Dorset Coast.

Of course fossils, and in particular these fossils, had been known for generation. For a world in which time was compressed by the supposed chronology of the Old Testament, and creation of different species had happened once and for all for human benefit, they were an embarrassing mystery best explained by the Flood. It was for example hard to account for marine fossils found on mountain tops. A Jesuit scholar of the seventeenth century interpreted them as manifestations of a plastic force inherent in rocks, and a few even believed that they were left around by God as a test of faith. Until the mid-nineteenth century many thought that living specimens of fossil species could be found somewhere in the world if only people looked hard enough for them. In Dorset they were lumped together as dragons, crocodiles, ladies’ fingers or curious. For the most part they were simply admired as curiosities but were scarcely intelligible within most people’s frames of reference.

Into this world came Mary Anning.