Ammonite: As Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning in film – who was Victorian fossil hunter?

Ammonite: Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star in trailer

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For the lady in question is Mary Anning, immortalised in The Geographical Society’s 1850 portrait by Benjamin Donne – and she was no retiring Victorian type. Born into a family of impoverished religious dissenters in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, she was a self-taught paleontologist whose pioneering discoveries altered science forever. Today she is recognised as one of the greatest fossil hunters ever, having risked her life daily beneath the crumbling cliffs of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast while battling sexism, social snobbery and personal tragedy. Now her incredible story is set to come to wider public attention as a film depicting a lesbian love affair between Anning and a female collaborator hits our screens.

Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet in the lead role and Saoirse Ronan as her geologist lover Charlotte Murchison, has been accused of sexing up the truth – but Anning’s supporters hope it will solidify her legacy.

“Her finds were jaw-dropping,” says Emma Bernard, curator of Fossil Fish at the Natural History Museum, where Anning’s specimens are publicly displayed, including the first complete skeleton of a plesiosaur. “If some of them were found today, they would be described as the find of the century.”

Three of the creatures she found are considered holotypes – specimens of such unique importance as to be used to describe and name an entirely new species.

“Even today her specimens are heavily used by scientists,” explains Emma.

What made Anning so successful, says Emma, was her “eye and knack” for finding what were then called “curiosities”.

She made perhaps her most famous excavation aged 12 in 1811 when she uncovered a 5.2metre long ichthyosaur skeleton, the first of its species to be correctly identified.

Given this was 30 years before the word “dinosaur” was coined by biologist Sir Richard Owen, some mistook the 200-million-old marine reptile for a crocodile.

Her second major find, in 1823, of the first complete plesiosaur skeleton caused such a stir that people assumed it must be a fake.

Paleontology wasn’t yet a science and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was not published until 1859. Anning’s excavations, along with emerging scientific theories, threatened religious orthodoxy.

Attempts were made to cover them up. “They rocked the theory that Earth was created in seven days and was only 6,000 years old,” explains Emma.

But even as her name became established in academic circles, and she became the “go-to expert” for scientists from Europe and America looking for fossils, she was barred from joining The Geological Society of London – it didn’t admit women until 1904 – and her discoveries were filed under men’s names.

“The world has used me ill… these men of learning have sucked my brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which I furnished the contents, while I derived none of the advantages,” she later told a friend.

Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a British archaeologist and co-founder of website Trowelblazers, which celebrates notable female scientists, says: “She was well aware she was finding all this amazing stuff, and it wasn’t always properly credited to her.

“She had collegiate relationships with the people who became famous as paleontologists because they were the ones that could publish the papers.”

Anning lived in an era when women did not have the vote and were barred from universities and academic societies.

Her working-class roots limited her too – fossil hunting was the preserve of the rich – but she was shaped by luck interspersed by tragedy.

At just 15 months, she survived being struck by lightning as a family friend cradled her under a tree during a storm. The three women with her were all killed instantly.

Anning’s father, Richard, and mother, Molly, considered their daughter’s survival a miracle and a turning point when her health blossomed.

They had 10 mouths to feed, although only Mary and older brother Joseph survived to adulthood. Richard, a cabinet maker with a seafront shop, turned to fossil hunting for extra cash, a young Mary clambering over rocks to help him find and clean fossils.

One day he fell and tumbled over the top of the cliffs. He survived but his body was weakened and he died of tuberculosis when his daughter was 11.

The family was saddled with his debts and Mary’s fossil hunting became an economic necessity.

She had little formal education but could read and write, and taught herself geology and anatomy.

Too poor to afford scientific publications, she borrowed them and copied out every word.

“She took great care to educate herself about the creatures that she was finding, partly because of business acumen and her need to know what money they could potentially bring her,” says Rebecca.

Anning advertised the “choice bits” outside her father’s shop and her specimens were often sold to the Natural History Museum.

It was a precarious existence and the question has long existed about why she didn’t marry, as was common, for security.

“Marrying somebody with another income would have helped but she may then have been required to give up some of the time of the fossil collecting to look after the house – and she would have been expected to have children,” says Rebecca.

Danger was ever-present and Anning was heartbroken when her faithful dog, Tray, was killed in a landslide in which she was injured. Still, she continued fossil hunting in all weathers.

“Men who met her noted she was tanned and was masculine in her expression,” says Rebecca.

“But what does that mean from a man in that period? Was she feisty and not willing to take rubbish offers for her fossils at her shop? Was she blunt in how she talked to people or super confident?”

Contemporary scientist Gideon Mantell branded Anning a “prim, pedantic vinegar-looking, thin female” but Rebecca says this is pure misogyny.

Anning was exemplary in her talent and preparation of sites. True, the Jurassic Coast was littered with prehistoric jewels but it took more than luck and random chiselling.

“Mary needed to know where to look, how to recognise a fossil, and how far it went back into the rock,” Emma explains.

“In a museum, you can see what a skeleton is supposed to look like but can you imagine finding the tip of a snout on an ichthyosaur?”

She was the first to recognise coprolites, colloquially known as fossilised poo, locating them in the ribs of the ichthyosaurs.

Such unglamorous work helped scientists understand how the animals had eaten and interacted.

And she was the first to recognise the preserved ink sacs of fossilised squid, using them to sketch the specimens with her neighbour and friend Elizabeth Philpot.

It was a myth she lacked friends or was a sole female pioneer, Rebecca says. “She was not this isolated lighthouse of a woman doing paleontology by herself. She was embedded in the networks of other active women.”

One of Anning’s closest relationships was with middle-class geologist Charlotte Murchison whom she taught to fossil hunt.

The exact nature of their relationship remains unclear but Ammonite director Francis Lee has caused a furore by making it romantic.

Journalist Oliver Tickell, 62, one of Anning’s descendants, doesn’t object. His father, former British ambassador to the United Nations Sir Crispin Tickell, 90, is her great-great-great nephew.

“I am not wholly opposed to a bit of free license with history in the interest of bringing a story to life and making it more interesting and more colourful than it perhaps was,” he says.

“I’d like to see how it’s done and I hope it is done well with sympathy and subtlety. It may add an interesting dimension and who knows? It could even be true.”

Oliver says Anning is a source of great pride and joy for his family, who share her passion for fossil hunting. He regards her as a “fighter” with an “indomitable spirit”.

“There were years in which they had to sell off bits of furniture, and other years where a fossil made £100 – it was precarious,” he says.

“Mary was proud, stubborn and independent for her entire life and she needed to be in order to succeed and survive through the poverty that she inherited.”

Anning died of breast cancer aged 47 in 1847, struggling financially to her last day.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes believes her life packs a punch today because of the juxtaposition between her straight-laced, full-skirted Victorian image and the “vast, terrifying creatures she was discovering”.

While Emma Bernard says Anning’s discoveries probably ran into the thousands, and are just as worthy of praise as her “rock star” finds, since scientists rely on mass volumes to develop evolution theories.

She adds: “If alive now, Mary would be one of the leading paleontologists of today.”

How schoolgirl Evie Swire raised £100,000 and counting… to fund a statue of Mary Anning

When Evie Swire learned about Mary Anning at school four years ago, she asked her mother Anya Pearson when they could visit her statue.

“I had to explain she didn’t have a statue because she was a woman and working-class and had been forgotten,” recalls Anya.

Evie, pictured right, from Dorchester, was shocked. “I looked at her and thought, ‘She’s right’. It’s shameful people had not championed her,” adds Anya.

The pair embarked on a £100,000 fundraising campaign to build a statue of Anning in her hometown of Lyme Regis.

They hit their target after David Attenborough became a patron. “When we made it we both screamed – it felt really good to know Mary was going to get her statue,” says Evie, 13.

Pending council approval, the statue will be built near Anning’s Dorset birthplace.

Ammonite is out now via Amazon’s Prime Video

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