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Dragons &

Introduction, research & field notes.

Mary Anning, born 1799, was a fossil hunter and palaeontologist from Lyme Regis, UK. Her discoveries of prehistoric sea creatures contributed to the identification and classification of a wide range of marine life.  As a woman born to a poor family, she was denied fellowship of the scientific communities of the day and her work was often credited to the men that dominated the field.

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; a few letters, a couple of notebooks and a range of records written by those that knew or encountered her.  In a letter written in 1844 – fifteen years before the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ – she anticipates the fundamental basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution

‘…from what little I have seen of the fossil World and Natural History, I think the connection or analogy between the creatures of the former and present World excepting as to size, much greater than is generally supposed….’ 1

Today she is acknowledged in the museums and collections that hold her work, though often credited as a collector, rather than the field palaeontologist and scientific thinker that she was.

During the research phase of this project I initially envisaged it to be a documentary work, looking at her legacy and the people she has influenced, those inspired by the underdog story, the ‘poor ignorant girl’2 finding herself in the company of the foremost men of science. Yet whilst photographing her original specimens, housed in collections and museums throughout the UK, I began looking for a critical distance to record from; looking for traces of her hand; scratchings from her pick; marks from her pen.

With movies being commissioned,3 novels and plays of her life being published, and her inclusion in the national curriculum I felt I needed to find a different way of telling her story, seeking  fragments of evidence of her presence, intimate, physical marks left behind by a remarkable woman.

1 Letter to Miss Solly (1844)
2 Lady Sylvester’s ‘Tour Through Devonshire’ (1824)

3 ‘Mary Anning & The Dinosaur Hunters’ due for release 2018

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Dragons &

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, 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 generations. For a world in which time was compressed by the supposed chronology of the Old Testament, they were an embarrassing mystery best explained by the Flood. 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. 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.

This work was made with support and kind permissions from:

Lyme Regis Museum
The Natural History Museum, London
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Geological Society of London

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the fossil hunters

There are 12 professional fossil hunters regularly
working the beach at Lyme Regis. Fossils are in
abundance here and amateurs and holiday makers
often find pyritised ammonites and fragments of
fossilised bones under the cliffs of Black Ven.
The professionals do so too, but they have also
made significant discoveries and have an intricate
knowledge of the specimens they hunt and the
landscape they survey. Like Mary Anning, despite
their knowledge of the science, their ability to locate
and identify specimens and various contributions
to new knowledge, they too are credited as collectors
rather than as field palaeontologists.

This is the beginning of the research work for a new
body of work building on Dragons & Snakestones.