The Little Fossil-Gatherer
By Isabel Thorne
Exerpted from Chatterbox (a Victorian children's magazine)
November 2, 1869 pp. 386—387
Along the coast of Devonshire are high cliffs washed by the sea, in which strange bones and shells are often found buried. People used to wonder what animals they belonged to, and they would pay money for the curious-looking fragments.
About seventy years ago there lived in one of these villages near the sea-shore, a carpenter who used to spend his leisure time in wandering along the coast and picking up fossils and stones, which he sold to the strangers, who came to visit the place and see its beautiful scenery. His little daughter Mary often accompanied him, for she was, like most children, very fond of going out with her father. This little girl was a heavy, dull child, who did not care to amuse herself or to play with other children; she was slow at learning her lessons in the little village-school, and found reading a difficult task. But a change suddenly came over her, brought about by a strange event.
She had been taken for a treat to see some horseriding in a field, when a heavy thunderstorm came on, and to escape getting wet she was taken by her friends under the shelter of some tall trees. Most young people now know that it is very dangerous to take refuge under high trees during a thunderstorm, for the lightning is always likely to strike the tallest objects. In this case the lightning was attracted to the lofty tree, and passing down its trunk rendered little Mary and her companions insensible; she was taken up by some persons who had seen the accient, carried home in an unconscious state and placed in a warm bath; and, strange to say, from that time she became a different kind of child to what she had been before, and instead of always appearing dull and slow, she was lively and animated. Her rambles with her father beame doubly interesting; he taught her all he had learnt from his long experience in fossil-gathering, and she soon showed a singular quickness in selecting the stones that contained curiousities. Many a pleasant walk they took together amongst the cliffs and crags of the rock-bound coast, within hearing of the murmur of the sea, or deafened by its furious roar. Mary's father carried her over the deep pools, or helped her to climb up the steep rocks that sometimes crossed their path. With his hammer he broke the stones and pebbles, which her quick eye chose out as the most likely to contain the objects for which they were seeking.
A sad stop was at length put to these happy rambles. Mary Anning's father fell ill of that sad lingering sickness consumption, and died and left her a poor little orphan of ten years old, without any one to take care of her and provide her with food. But her Almighty Father did not forget her, and just when she knew not where to turn for food and shelter while passing sadly along one of the pathways which she used to traverse so merrily with her father, she caught sight of a fossil ammonite, one of those curious shells which were the habitations of creatures like the Nautilus, that raised their tender membranous sails and floated on the mighty ocean. She knew it was a particularly fine one, and therefore offered it for sale to a lady who happened to be visiting the town of Lyme. It was bought for half-a-crown, and encouraged by this success Mary Anning set diligently to work to gather these curiosities for sale and thus obtained a livelihood.
By degrees the fame of the little fossil-gatherer spread abroad, and wise men in London and other places who were studying the science of geology, or what is found within the earth, were glad to buy the curious specimens of bones and shells collected by the young girl.
One day her eye trained by long practice detected some bones sticking out of the side of the cliff. With her hammer she traced the outline of some huge monster, whose existence had never before been recognized; she employed men to dig away the earth which was around it, and at length the entire skeleton was made clear. From the end of the jaw to the tip of its tail it measured thirty feet, the socket of the eye was as large as a huge saucer. It was like a creature made up of many parts of other animals, the head shaped like that of a lizard, the teeth were those of a crocodile, the trunk and tail resembled that of an ordinary quadruped, but it had the paddles of a whale, the ribs of a chameleon, and a long slender neck.
Many persons came from all parts to see this wonderful creature, and it was at length bought by a Mr. Henly for twenty-three pounds. This huge fossil, with many others discovered by Mary Anning, may now be seen at the British Museum. No one knew at first what it could be; one geologist called it a crocodile, another a lizard, till at last the long and difficult name of Ichthyosaurus, or Fish-lizard, was given to it. From this time the name of Mary Anning became widely known amongst geologists, who awaited with impatience the discoveries of strange remains that were frequently made by her.
The next animal whose skeleton was made known was the Pterodactyle, a great creature with wings like a bat, a long tapering bill resembling a woodcock's, armed with crocodile teeth, and strong armour over a body shaped like a bird's.
Mary Anning went on her quiet way constantly finding fresh treasures embedded in the blue lime, while her friends made out after a great deal of puzzling what they belonged to. The long thin bones commonly called ladies' fingers were discovered to be the back-bone of the cuttle-fish, and some were so perfect that the ink-bag was made use of, and sepia drawings shown, drawn in ink taken from the little ink-bag of a fish that had been buried in the earth for thousands of years.
As Mary Anning grew older she made a large collection which attracted many visitors, and in 1844 Dr. Carus accompanied the King of Saxony to see it, and bought six feet of the skeleton of a reptile for fifteen pounds. He asked her to write her name in his pocket-book, which she did, and he said that it was well-known throughout Europe.
Professor Owen procured for her a pension of forty pounds a year from the British Museum, as a slight acknowledgement of the value of her labours in advancing the science of geology; and at her death, in 1847, of cancer, the Geological Society set up a memorial window in the church at Lyme Regis. The insciption bears testimony to her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, and also her her kindness of heart and integrity of life.
This short account of a life is written to show other children what has been done by one of themselves, who made use of the talents entrusted to her, and who by diligent observation not only secured an honest livelihood for herself, but aided in establishing the foundations of science whose records contain all that is known of the condition of the earth in the countless ages before men were created.
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