She sells seashells on the seashore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
It’s said that the inspiration behind this fiendishly difficult tongue-twister was a young woman called Mary Anning.
Mary was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1799, and didn’t have an easy childhood. She survived being struck by lightning as a baby, and her father died when she was eleven. This left the family desperately short of money. But her discoveries of fossils among the shingle beaches and cliffs near her home not only brought in a little income, they eventually made her extremely famous all over the world.
Fossil hunting and collecting was nothing new. By Mary’s time it was something of a craze. And it was also something her whole family was involved in, in some way. Mary’s mother was listed as a ‘fossil seller’, but Mary Anning took her interest to another level altogether. Despite receiving little schooling, she taught herself to become an expert on the strange and fantastic animals these fossils represent – to such an extent that eventually, leading scientists of the day sought her opinions.
Fossils are basically rocks, but obviously, rocks with a difference! Over many thousands of years, ever-increasing layers of mud or wet sand compressed the bones of dead animals. When these layers dissolved, they left behind minerals, which hardened into rock in the shape of the original bones.
Another type of fossil is from the imprint of a body (or plant, leaf etc) in mud or sand. The creature slowly decomposes, and the imprint left behind again hardens over an incredibly long period of time into rock.
Scientists came to Lyme Regis from all over Britain and further afield to buy Mary’s latest finds and discuss with her where fossils fitted into the bigger historical picture. She was also much admired by the fossil-hunting community. When Colonel Thomas Birch, who had bought many fossils from Mary, heard that the family had fallen on hard times, he sold his own collection and donated the money to them.
Mary eventually made enough money to open a shop where she could display and sell her fossils, and in 1844 the visiting King of Saxony spotted an Ichthyosaur head in the window. He not only called in to buy it for his own collection, but also asked her to take him to the nearby cliffs where she did all her fossil hunting.
This was all happening at a time when a new breed of scientists were starting to question the biblical story of creation, and the idea that the world could only be a few thousand years old. Until this period, all sorts of far-fetched stories had arisen to explain what the strange fossilised creatures could be and why they were no longer around. The study of fossils gradually revolutionised our understanding of how old the Earth is and what sort of plants and animals existed before mankind came along.
Apart from her work in helping the scientific community to fit the pieces of the historical puzzle together, Mary made some historically important discoveries. She was around twelve years old when, along with her brother, she found the first complete ichthyosaur fossil. And as a young woman, she was the first to discover the partial remains of a plesiosaur. She sent it to the world-famous French scientist, Georges Cuvier, who thought it was too good to be true and so must be a fake. However, after further studies and discussions with others he realised it was genuine. His acceptance of her find helped Mary’s reputation to grow even more.
Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning lived her whole life, is now a popular tourist town, and fossils can still be found on nearby beaches:
But, her dog was killed by a landslide that only just missed Mary herself – so if you go fossil hunting, take care!
A museum now stands on the site of Mary’s house and shop:
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Words: AQUILA Team. Illustration: Natasha Durley