Thursday 30 May 2019

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - the ammonite on the mantelpiece

Searching for inspiration for this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a Google search (note: other search engines are available) reminded me that the original Cabinets often contained wonders of Natural History. This in turn made me think straight away of my own tiny pieces of natural history, a crystalline ammonite and a few chunks of belemnite found on the beach at Lyme Regis.

These are both common fossils – I spotted the belemnites myself, and the ammonite came from the same hour’s fossil-hunting tour (albeit from the guide, whose eye was much keener than mine) – but they bring me enormous pleasure despite that.

Fossils from Lyme in turn make me think of Mary Anning. As a scientist, she’s one who was long neglected, although in recent years her importance has started to be recognised.

Mary was born in 1799, the daughter of a carpenter. Her father supplemented the family’s earnings by selling fossils from the beach to the gentry who were starting to visit Lyme. When he died, Mary and her brother continued to sell their finds as a way of supporting themselves and their mother.

Mary became highly skilled, not only at finding new fossils, but also at understanding them. Her notes and drawings are detailed and exact. She made some of the most important and spectacular finds of the period, just as palaeontology was opening up whole new worlds of ancient creatures. She was a pioneer especially in the discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Men like William Buckland, the Reverend Conybeare, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen all benefitted from Mary’s discoveries and expertise.
Mary Anning. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But as a woman – and a working class woman at that – she stood no chance to joining any of the learned scientific Societies in London, or even seeing her name in print as an expert writing about her finds. Nor did they usually even pay her especially well: money was a concern for most of Mary’s life. Mary died of breast cancer in 1847, at the age of 47.

In recent years, Mary’s story has become increasingly well-known. You can find it told (and her finds clearly labelled as hers) in museums such as the Natural History Museum, and several biographies exist. Her importance has been recognised by the scientific establishment. Her story has also been told through historical fiction including Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures and by our very own Joan Lennon in the Daughters of Time anthology. Currently there’s a film in production which will help to bring her name to an even wider audience, as well as campaigns to get her onto the new £50 note and for a statue of her to be erected in Lyme.

Ms Anning was clearly a highly intelligent woman, who was knowledgeable, skilled and a true expert in her field. She lived at a time when incredible new discoveries were being made, and which she contributed to enormously. In many ways she was remarkable. But in others she was entirely unremarkable – or at least similar to countless women and working class people throughout history, who have got on with the hard grind of daily living, doing whatever needs to be done to make ends meet, knowing that they were likely to receive little credit and less glory for their hard work.

My ammonite sits in pride of place on my living room mantelpiece, a tiny monument to the wonders of Nature, and to the countless people like Mary who have contributed to our understanding of nature, science and history.
My own tiny ammonite, which nonetheless has
pride of place on my mantelpiece. 

You can find out more about Mary Anning at and about the campaign to erect a statue in her honour at

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