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The Fossil Hunter
Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World
By Shelley Emling
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Shelley Emling
All rights reserved.
Snakestones, Thunderbolts, and Verteberries
On a sunny September afternoon in 1793, an adventure-seeking cabinetmaker named Richard Anning and his brooding bride, Molly, packed up a few trunks of belongings—all they owned in the world—and journeyed about a dozen or so miles, from the tiny village of Colyton, to England's dangerously rugged coastline. They had decided to stake their future on an obscure port town they'd probably heard of in passing only a few months before: Lyme Regis.
Most likely equipped with little more than an old family Bible, farm tools, a few cotton skirts and shirts, and a single waistcoat, the young couple might have paid about 10 shillings to hitch a ride on a large, heavy wagon used to ferry equipment to farms dotting the bucolic borough of Dorset. Drawn by eight horses, the vehicle would have snaked along at a tedious two miles an hour toward what Richard felt sure in his heart would be a prosperous future.
By most descriptions, Richard Anning was a charismatic, somewhat childlike man with a passion for change and new challenges; his wife was much more serious and cynical. Richard's faith was in the Lord and in his own exhaustive energy. Molly's trust was in Richard.
After nearly two days of weary plodding, across rocky streams and bright meadows, bounced about among piles of saddles and harnesses, the bedraggled newlyweds would have heaved a huge sigh of relief when they finally caught sight of a few tightly packed houses on a hilly road, tumbling down toward a delicious little harbor: the first sight of their destiny.
Mingling with the more common thatched cottages and stone barns was a sweet array of white Georgian villas, somewhat faded by decades of salt spray, but still providing a rare bright spot in what was otherwise a sobering picture.
For the most part, Lyme Regis looked like an unnatural town, squashed as it was into the narrow valley of the river Lym, book-ended by miles and miles of England's most unstable coastline. With space ideally suited for a population of 800, the bowl of a village had become home to at least 1,250 mostly hard- up residents by the time Richard and Molly Anning rolled in. As a result, sanitary conditions were deplorable, with the town's compactness contributing to the rapid spread of dirt and disease. Hogs and rats ran amok in the streets. And, at house after house, mounds of refuse rose up from the ground like sunflower plants, towering so high that it was hard to see out the windows. Just that summer, the Lyme courts had prosecuted a handful of citizens for allowing bullocks to defecate into clean drinking water. Indeed, the water was so filthy that many people bypassed it altogether, opting instead to quench their thirst with a watered- down ale known as "small beer." Casting an invisible pall over the town were rumors that France, the dominant military power in Europe, was about to launch an invasion. Lyme Regis was right in Napoleon's line of fire.
This was the new world—the great destiny—that greeted Richard Anning and his bride as they stretched achy legs, perusing a landscape that exuded commotion but hardly the promise that should have gone with it. Most wives would have been horrified. In the most positive of lights, it was a place that would take some getting used to, even for the hardiest of characters. But where Molly might have seen barriers, cheerful Richard would have seen only opportunities. If anything, his spirits would have been buoyed just by the change of scenery. And—whether it was intelligence, intuition, or just dumb luck—Richard's instincts would turn out to be flawless.
* * *
Richard's choice of Lyme Regis had been a strategic one, most likely triggered by news from friends or travelers of a new turnpike built between the nearby towns of Dorchester and Exeter—a road completed only in 1758—that was designed to pump economic life into the entire region. Until 1759, a wheeled vehicle had never passed into Lyme Regis; all goods landed at the port and were transported by packhorse teams. The borough of Dorset also was marginalized from the rest of the country because of its very strong local dialect. The turnpike helped change all that by linking Lyme Regis to the outside world. Probably unbeknownst to Richard when he arrived was the fact that—with the help of the new turnpike—Lyme Regis was about to transform itself into England's guilty little pleasure.
For centuries, the town had been a major commercial port. Even in the late 1700s, it was one of the most important ports in England. In particular, Lyme Regis had taken enormous pride in its manmade breakwater—one of the oldest artificial harbors in England, dating from the thirteenth century. Known as the Cobb, which means "rounded island" in the local dialect, this 600-foot stone jetty, built from oaken crates topped with rounded boulders, curved out protectively like a long arm into the English Channel, shielding the location against fierce westerly storms and buffeting seawaters since medieval times. But ships were becoming too large for the town's shallow harbor, with its limited space, and so fewer were arriving each month. Once-busy shipyards near the Cobb started going out of business, and over time, most trade transferred from Lyme Regis to Liverpool, a port about 250 miles away. The same ships that couldn't carry goods out also stopped bringing food in, resulting in widespread food shortages. Adding impetus to this economic downturn was a disappointing cloth trade, slammed by highly organized competition from a more industrialized North. With its plethora of weavers' homes and mills, Lyme Regis had enjoyed a booming cloth business with France as early as 1284. But the Industrial Revolution, which started in England in the mid-1700s, meant that steam-powered looms in cities farther north started churning out cloth and lace faster and cheaper than they could be crafted by hand. Coupled with war in Europe, the Industrial Revolution hammered the town's longtime economic staples.
By the early 1700s, prophecies of economic doom were becoming commonplace, and many families were barely able to put food on their tables. But desirable new prospects were arising. Lyme's salvation turned out to be its clean sea air and salubrious seawater—perks the locals had long taken for granted but that others in England, weary of the grinding noise and filth brought on by the Industrial Revolution, were now seeking with a voracious appetite.
And so the Annings were but a few drops in a stream of English travelers who were starting to discover Lyme Regis during those days, their journeys more often than not inspired by one Richard Russell, a prominent doctor from Brighton. Russell had created a sensation in the 1750s, writing a popular treatise on the therapeutic effects of the ocean. He called it "The Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Affections of the Glands." The therapy was simple enough: complete immersion in the sea followed by consumption of a pint of seawater, a routine he described as "a common defense against corruption and putrefaction of bodies." Soon the seawater was considered a cure for everything from gout to gonorrhea. The storm of publicity surrounding Russell's work tempted affluent tourists to travel to England's coastal villages. Even King George III, who oversaw the loss of the American colonies, was known to take long dips in the sea during retreats to Weymouth, near Lyme Regis, with the robust strains of "God Save Great George Our King" blaring out from musicians on the beach each time his portly frame descended into the water.
Almost overnight, and just at the tail end of the eighteenth century, Lyme Regis had turned into a spa town, with its local government officials and business owners cleaning up the streets and promoting the shoreline as an economic alternative to renowned but more expensive rivals such as Weymouth, Brighton, and especially Bath. With its warm mineral springs, Bath had pioneered this new fad, although its perfect bl end of entertainment and architecture had made it almost too successful, and so crowded that pleasure seekers began looking for quieter alternatives. In general, English travelers deterred from visiting the Continent due to tensions with France were eagerly seeking holiday options that were closer to home.
Coastal towns like Lyme Regis also were benefiting from the invention of a new essential for enjoying the sea: the bathing machine. Previously, anyone wishing to savor the water was obliged to undress on the beach. The new contraption, although cumbersome to use, was designed to provide cover for genteel souls for whom modesty was next to godliness. Donkeys drew to the water's edge what was essentially a wooden shed on wheels, providing a sort of hidey-hole for the bashful. By the early 1800s, four bathing machines were operating on the western part of Lyme beach, with another seven regularly plying the tranquil waters behind Lyme Regis's manmade harbor. Men and women took turns using the machines. When ladies bathed, a bell was sounded, meaning men should make themselves scarce. Even rowboats were requested to stay at least 100 yards away.
It wasn't long before indoor baths became popular as well, with one of the first being built in Lyme Regis in 1804. These baths boasted not only private cubicles and tepid water, with attendants, but newspapers, refreshments, and even card-game tables. They were seen as a real luxury for those who preferred not to bathe in the sea, out in the open. For nighttime entertainment, the town's chief public space, the Assembly Rooms built in the late 1700s, became the place to be, the scene of fancy balls, card games, and billiards. According to resident novelist and historian John Fowles, who set his classic book The French Lieutenant's Woman in Lyme Regis, snobbery and backbiting reigned supreme amid the dancing, gambling, and gossiping, with young flirts and imperious old ladies fraternizing with gruff sea captains and pretentious young businessmen.
The town was fortunate in that it had a major benefactor at the time—the philanthropist Thomas Hollis, who helped turn Lyme Regis into a healthy holiday resort by buying land along the shore and creating the first public promenade in 1771. A social reformer, Hollis was well known throughout Europe and America. His interest in Lyme Regis sprang from his retirement to nearby Corscombe. He purchased many of the dilapidated properties in town during the mid-1700s and rebuilt them in the elegant late Georgian style. Although he never visited America, Hollis later was known for his large donations to Harvard University.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, even England's artists were starting to take notice of Lyme Regis, not because of the sea's benefits but because of the region's wild and romantic coastal backdrops. Eventually the town would become a favorite haunt of James Whistler and J. M. W. Turner, both of whom completed major paintings while on holiday there. The not-yet-famous Jane Austen was another regular visitor to the area. Born in 1775, Austen moved with her family to Bath after her father retired as the parish rector in nearby Steventon. After a coach service was inaugurated between Bath and Lyme Regis, a journey of about 70 miles, Jane's family visited the town briefly in both 1803 and 1804, reveling in what was fast becoming a carnival atmosphere. In her novel Persuasion, Austen famously described Lyme Regis:
The walk to the Cobb, skirting around the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs, stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek, and a very strange stranger it must be who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.
Austen even had an altercation with Richard Anning during one of her visits. In a letter to her sister Cassandra dated September 14, 1804, Jane says she asked him to repair a "broken lid" on a box. Apparently he said the job would cost five shillings. She thought the price completely outlandish, arguing that it was "beyond the value of all the furniture in the room together."
By all accounts, Richard Anning lost Jane's business but it wasn't likely that he cared too much. By this time, he was focused on other lucrative ventures. Rather than apply himself to his carpentry work, as had been the original plan, he was busy signing on to another kind of life: the finding of odd- looking stones on the beach that he could sell to tourists seeking souvenirs of their seaside vacations.
* * *
Since the sixteenth century, people had referred to most anything ferreted out of the ground—including minerals, metals, and rocks—as "fossils," derived from the Latin word for "having been dug up." Finally, by around 1800, a few academics, mostly in Paris, began to study plant and animal fossils scientifically. The strange fossils found along Lyme Regis's shores had baffled the locals for as long as anyone could remember. They came in all forms and sizes—including what later were determined to be bivalves, ammonites, belemnites, and brachiopods—and sometimes even the fragments of giant critters never heard of before. For example, what locals called "verteberries" or "crocodile teeth" actually were individual vertebrae from an unknown prehistoric creature. Lyme Bay's beaches had earned a reputation for being so full of extraordinary fossils that smugglers running ashore on pitch- black nights were able to determine their location simply by running a handful of the peculiar pebbles through their fingers.
Some people thought fossils were so lovely and delicate that they surely must be God's decorations, allowed to bubble up from the inside of the Earth, a bit like flowers, plants, and trees were allowed to ornament the outside. Others thought they must be the remains of the victims of the worldwide flood recorded in Genesis. The belemnite fossil—known by local s as the "thunderbolt"— looked like an elongated bullet with an exaggerated point and was thought to be the result of a lightning strike. Indeed, a myriad of myths and theories grew up around these and other fossils. According to one, powdered belemnites were able to clear up infections in a horse's eye; water in which belemnites had been soaked was thought to be able to cure horses with worms. Called snakestones—or "cornemonius" in the local dialect—ammonites were believed to be particularly magical, able to ward off all sorts of maladies, from snakebites to impotence.
Set in the center of a fossil-rich coastline extending 95 miles from Exmouth to Bournemouth, Lyme Regis's stretches of beach were and still are some of the most unstable expanses in the country. The cliffs' limestone ledges alternate with bands of shale, all crazily tilting toward the sea at some point, like a geological deck of cards. The mix of limestone and shale is formally known as Blue Lias—blue for the blue-gray color of the limestone and lias from the Gaelic word for "flat stone." This Blue Lias was, and is, constantly under siege from the rough waves. Every time a cliff face withers away, eroded by water, a rich seam of fossils is laid out, as nicely as a Sunday supper. But a fierce storm can just as easily wipe out and wash away a unique fossil before anyone can get to it.
Many of Lyme Regis's most important treasures have always been tucked away tightly inside Black Ven, the ominously named 150-foot-high cliff of sliding sand topped with scrubby grass, located east of town. Countless other strange stones are hidden inside the adjacent Church Cliffs, also to the east, where the limestone and shale could be reached only after the tide receded. Much later, geologists would learn that Blue Lias belonged to the lowest division of the Jurassic—part of the Mesozoic Era and also known as the "Age of Reptiles." During this era, some 200 million years ago, this region had supported diverse life-forms. At the bottom of the food chain were plankton as well as clams, oysters, and barnacles, sources of food for other sources of food that eventually reached to the top of the food chain—to carnivores and various sea scavengers.
At the time, most of Britain was covered by generally shallow waters with mountains rising up from some parts. The site on which London would be built was located on a peninsula, overtaken by rising water levels. What is now America was drifting away from Europe with the Atlantic starting to take shape as a recognizable ocean. As time passed, all sorts of life-forms were safely deposited in ancient seabeds, turning Lyme Regis's topography into something of a primordial soup, a place uniquely able to store evidence of 200 million years of evolution. Scientists eventually discovered that the cliffs east and west of Lyme Regis portrayed an almost continuous sequence of rock formations spanning the entire Mesozoic Era, perhaps better than any other locale on the planet. Until the early 1800s, though, the area's residents had no knowledge of this. But then, ever so slowly, the nearby cliffs began spilling their secrets, opening up like the cover of a prehistoric tome sealed away by the eons.
At high tide and at the height of any potent storm, Lyme Regis's coastline became a sort of Ground Zero for unimaginable violence. A strong northeasterly wind carried waves from halfway across the North Atlantic, water that crashed into fragile walls of mud, clay, shale, and limestone, exposing at the rate of two to three feet a year what were millions of years' worth of geological truths. Every so often these storms brought to light proof that ancient monsters had once roamed the land: a dimming outline of a sharp tooth on a flat stone; an impression of a knee joint peeking out from under a clump of weeds. Petrified in the rocks were all sorts of bizarre-looking fragments, hints of a lost world in which the dinosaur was king.
Excerpted from The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling. Copyright © 2009 Shelley Emling. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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