You might have seen the 2020 film Ammonite. The film is loosely inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet. It is also suspected she inspired the tongue twister ‘She sells; seashells on the seashore’.
Mary Anning, born 1799, was a fossil hunter and palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in the UK. Her discoveries and insights contributed to the identification and classification of a wide range of prehistoric life and changed scientific understanding of the history of the Earth.
To put her history in context, while Mary was growing up, George III was king, the war between the British and Napoleon’s French army was raging on and Jane Austen had written Sense and Sensibility.
As a woman born to a poor family, she was denied fellowship of the scientific communities of the day, her work 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. The handful of letters and notebooks which survive reveal the extent of her knowledge, give glimpses into her state of mind, and act as a stark reminder of her poverty and relentless, solitudinous labour.
Today she is acknowledged in the museums and collections that hold her work, though often credited as a collector, rather than as the field palaeontologist and scientific thinker that she was. Throughout her life, she leaves us written evidence of the connections she made, questioning established thought of the time. In a letter written in 1844 – fifteen years before the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ – she anticipated the fundamental basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
For this photographic exhibition, photographer Jamie Dormer-Durling spent considerable time alone with some of the fossils. He began looking for traces she left in this space. On the fossils he saw marks from her tools; on her drawings, correspondence and notebooks. In the photo’s he has captured evidence of her thinking in intimate ways and physical marks left behind by a remarkable woman.
More can be found about Mary Anning on The Natural History Museums’ website.
Dragons & Snakestones – An exhibition of photography by Jamie Dormer-Durling, celebrating Mary Anning, History’s Pioneer of Palaeontology. 27th May opening 6.00pm – 8th June at Weston Museum