Ammonite: Who was the real Mary Anning?
- Credit: Ammonite/Lionsgate
Ammonite, a new film directed by Francis Lee about the self-taught palaeontologist and fossil hunter Mary Anning, is causing some controversary due to its speculation about her private life. Shot on location in Lyme Regis, the West Dorset seaside town where Anning lived, the film features the glorious Jurassic Coast as Anning’s fossil hunting ground.
Described by the Natural History Museum as an ‘unsung hero’, Anning’s fame has escalated over the last few decades as the story of this Lyme Regis fossil cognoscente has spread far and wide. Born in 1799, Anning dedicated her life to exploring the Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs near her home town. Her many discoveries, including finding the first fully formed ichthyosaur (fish lizard) when she was just 12 years old, is one of the reasons that in 2010 the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the 10 British women who have most influenced the history of science. But during Anning’s lifetime her work was often dismissed or derided.
Ammonite imagines Anning (Kate Winslet) striking up an intense relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who is sent to convalesce by the sea in Lyme Regis. At the time Lyme Regis was a very fashionable seaside resort, visited by the wealthy to indulge in the trend of sea bathing and bracing sea air for their health. The relationship between the two is pure fiction. And its inclusion has drawn a mixed response from many, including Anning’s relatives and others who would prefer that she was recognised for ground-breaking achievements in the fields of palaeontology and science.
Francis Lee seems unfazed by such criticism. ‘Why could she not be a lesbian?’ is his response. The God’s Own Country director cites the latent ‘straightening’ of so much of our history and the ‘lack of evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship’ asking, ‘Is it not permissible to view Anning within any another context?’
Whatever you may think of Lee’s fossil fiction, the backdrop for this film is stunning, with dramatic brooding shots of Lyme Bay captured by the award-winning French cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine. Over the three-week Dorset shoot in March 2019, Ammonite filmed at Eype Beach to the east and Charmouth Beach, whilst in Lyme Regis locations included The Cobb, Coombe Street and the fossil shop just above the Marine Parade.
When the winds were howling, the waves crashing and the rain lashing down, Lee gathered his crew to go out and capture the real Lyme Regis, not the picture postcard seaside town basking in sunshine. Anning would scour the local beach during and after storms as this is when she would find rare fossils. Lee is shooting Lyme the way Anning would have seen it and experienced it back in the 1830s and 40s.
So, who was the real Mary Anning? Born to a working-class family on 21 May, 1799, Anning’s father was a cabinet maker and supplemented his income by scouring the local beach and cliffs for fossils to sell to visitors and collectors from his seafront shop. From an early age Anning and her older brother would go looking for fossils, which she referred to as ‘curiosities’. Her tenacity paid off as, at the age of 12, she discovered a complete skeleton - 17 ft nose to tail - of an ichthyosaur - a marine reptile that lived 201-194 million years ago. She had initially seen its skull sticking out of the cliff, and for some time scientists thought it was an exotic crocodile.
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The previous year to this ground-breaking find, her father had died of TB, so the fossils that Anning found became an important part of the family’s income. The ichthyosaur, sold for £23 a considerable sum in those days, is now in the Natural History Museum’s collection in London. Anning taught herself about geology and anatomy, often dissecting marine creatures such as cuttlefish to help her to understand more about her fossil finds.
In 1825 she uncovered the first complete specimen of a plesiosaur, a long-necked marine reptile so bizarre that it was initially dismissed as a fake. This was soon disproved. Other firsts she unearthed was the remains of a pterosaur, a flying dinosaur that ruled the skies during the Jurassic and Cretaceous period.
As a working-class woman in the 19th century, with a family to support, Anning had to sell what she found. Often the wealth men who bought her precious finds would pass these off as their own when they sold or donated them to museums.
She did have some supporters though including Henry De La Beche, president of the Geological Society who read her eulogy at one of their meetings after Anning’s death from breast cancer at the age of 47. Though her work was often discussed and debated by them, Anning was never invited to join this men-only establishment,. They finally admitted women in 1904. Anning is buried at St Michael the Archangel Church in Lyme Regis, and the Geological Society paid for a stained-glass window to be installed in her memory three years after her death.
So, what remains of Mary Anning’s legacy in her home town?
Lyme Regis Museum in Bridge Street stands on the site of her birthplace and family home. Inside the museum is a fabulous new wing, opened in 2017 and named after her, which showcases her remarkable story and some of her local finds.
More than 170 years after her death, a local school girl called Evie Swire spearheaded a successful Crowd Funding campaign called Mary Anning Rocks, supported by Sir David Attenborough and Professor Alice Roberts, to erect a statue in Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. Sculptor Denise Dutton has been commissioned to create the piece (maryanningrocks.co.uk).
For fossil fans young and old, Lyme Regis itself remains one of the places to visit; it hosts an annual Fossil Festival, and even the lamp posts on the sea front are topped by an ammonite design! Here you can walk along the beaches of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and pick up ammonites and belemnites like Anning did. Not sure what to look for? Book a guided fossil walk with one of the experts from Lyme Regis Museum (lymeregismuseum.co.uk).
Another good place to discover more about the sea creatures from this period is The Etches Collection of Jurassic Marine Life at Kimmeridge, an extraordinary collection gathered by another self-taught palaeontologist Dr Steve Etches MBE. Originally a plumber by trade, he began collecting fossils from the Kimmeridge Clay over 35 years ago and now has a collection of over 2,500 fossils that tell the story of life in the Kimmeridgian seas off Dorset 157 million years ago. The Etches Collection are hosting the Mary Anning Conference of Curiosities on 12 April, a virtual online event celebrating the life, work and legacy of Mary Anning (book at theetchescollection.org, click on events)
Ammonite may be causing something of a storm in the media, but so did this remarkable working-class woman in her time. Anning is not merely a fossil collector, but a trailblazing scientist that helped the world to better understand palaeontology. Mary Anning truly does rock and is an inspirational role model for all fossil hunters of the 21st century.
Ammonite is on general release from 26 March 2021, and is one of the films streaming online at this year’s From Page to Screen film festival frompagetoscreen.info.
The March/April edition of Dorset Magazine is on sale now - including a behind-the-scenes sneak-peak at the filming of Ammonite on the Jurassic Coast.