jueves, 24 de mayo de 2012

Mary Anning: a fossil-hunting passion

*To my English readers: I apologize for every mistake. Please be aware I am a Spanish writer who translates what you have asked for

Books have always erected the biggest scaffolding around me since I was a child and their stories never asked for permission before introducing themselves into my life. Books never sleep even though we are not awake.

The Diplodocus at the National History Museum (London)
The first book I ever read was about dinosaurs, those giant animals extinct millions of years ago, the prehistoric reptiles that lived 230-65 millions years ago. I had almost forgotten that early passion until I went to live in London in June 2010. That was also the date of my first visit to the National History Museum. It is impossible to describe the impact of seeing the impressive Diplodocus with its long tail, formidable body and tiny head, standing at the museum's central hall. The same applies to the meat-eater predator Tyrannosaurus.

Mary Anning (1799-1847).
In the previous room I had found a large hall with the portrait of Mary Anning (1799-1847), the famous fossil-hunter and collector. A woman of a serious gesture, a severe black dress and a hat firmly tied to the neck. On the portrait it could also be seen the skeleton of one of the animals she discovered, and to the side, a few lines of tribute: “Some of the finest fossils in this gallery were found by Mary Anning (1799-47), of Lyme Regis, Dorset. At the age of 11, she discovered a complete skeleton of ichthyosaurus in Blue Lias rocks (Charmouth beach). Fossil-hunting became a life-long passion and Mary Anning earned respect from collectors and scientist-alike. Sadly, the fossil-woman of Lyme Regis died of cancer at the age of 47".  
The ichthyosaur found by Mary Anning.
"Fossilized ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, preserved in Lower or Middle Jurassic rocks, have been found in many sites in southern England. Mary Anning is thought to be the first person to discover complete ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and her remarkable fossils are still studied"      

As for me, looking at the portrait of Mary Anning and her baby, I couldn't help wondering if her inquisitive, firm and direct gaze could even reveal a myriad of the extraordinary woman she must have been.
Tracy Chevalier with Mary Anning's fossils.
By the time I visited the museum I was reading Remarkable creatures, a novel by Tracy Chevalierauthor I loved because of their previous The blue virgin and Girl with a pearl earring, among others works. I did find funny that Remarkable creatures was the first book I had bought since my arriving to London, and also that the real Mary Anning was the protagonist of that novel.

Cover of 'Remarkable creatures'.
Remarkable creatures is the fictionalized story of Mary Anning, whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as the ichthyosaur led to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world. Mary Anning spent her entire life in her working-class background, as a single independent woman who dug the cliffs and sands trying to find fossils of dinosaurs on the coast of Dorset, in the village of Lyme Regis.
I had a great time visiting the Natural History Museum and after that day I came back on occasions to see its treasures. But that very first time I spent several minutes in front of the portrait of Mary Anning. Just seating there, paying to her my sincere tribute as a woman and scientist.