200-year-old token found on Dorset beach probably belonged to famous fossil-finder Mary Anning, say researchers

By Ben Miller | 22 November 2015

Destitute female fossil-finder who made great discoveries during early 19th century remembered by token on beach

The name Mary Anning and the date shown on the token which could have been made for the brilliant fossil finder more than 100 years ago© Courtesy University of Leicester
Mary Anning, the famous 19th century fossil collector revered across the world despite only leaving Dorset once during a life of groundbreaking discoveries, probably owned a childhood token from more than two centuries ago found on a Lyme Regis beach by researchers.

This side of the token shows the location and age inscribed© Courtesy University of Leicester
Michael Taylor, a visiting fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, found the tiny metal disc on Church Cliff Beach, adorned with “MARY ANNING MDCCCX” (1810) on the obverse of the disc and “LYME REGIS AGE XI”.

This painting of Anning is credited to Mr Grey in Crispin Tickell's book, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, from 1996. Two versions exist side by side at Cambridge's Sedgwick Museum© Geological Society / Natural History Museum
Working with his colleague, Dr Richard Bull, Taylor has concluded that the coin was likely to have been made as a birthday present by Anning’s father, Richard, shortly before his death in 1810, with its low-quality production likely to rule out the possibility that it was created in commemoration following her passing in 1847. It has now gone on display at Lyme Regis Museum.

Blue lias cliffs at Lyme Regis© Michael Maggs
A self-educated, working-class explorer, Anning illuminated the world of science by contributing hugely to the early days of palaeontology, beginning by finding the bulk of a large ichthyosaur with the help of her brother in 1810.

Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche (February 10 1796 – April 13 1855)© Wikimedia Commons
Despite her standing as one of the greatest fossil finders in history, she remains somewhat obscure – perhaps, some commentators suggest, because of the struggle women faced for recognition in Britain at the time.

“Its importance is that it's such a very personal little thing and a real addition to the Museum's collection which doesn't have many items from Anning,” says Taylor.

The Jurassic coast at Charmouth, Dorset, where the Annings made some of their finds© Kevin Walsh / Wikimedia Commons
“Richard Anning died in November 1810 and the bereaved family were on parish relief by 1811, raising the possibility that the token was used to indicate entitlement to out-relief such as handouts of bread.

“However, no such tokens are known in the operation of the poor law in Lyme, and none exists in the local collections of the museum.

A blue plaque at the Lyme Regis Museum. Mary Anning was born and had her first fossil shop at the building before it made way for the museum© Gaius Cornelius / Wikimedia Commons
“It does not tell us anything very new about Anning, but it does establish the find as a useful addition to the very few items of likely or certainly known Anning provenance in the museum.

“It's a pleasure to be able to do research of such immediate use to the museum.”

Mary Anning's story

Letter and drawing from Mary Anning announcing the discovery of a fossil animal now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, on December 26 1823© Wikimedia Commons
  • As a child, Mary and her father would go out fossil hunting regularly. They would bring back their fossils, clean and polish them, then sell them to tourists as curios.

  • In 1810, when her father died, Mary and her family were destitute, burning furniture to keep warm and under constant threat of the workhouse. Selling fossils became the family's only source of income.

  • In 1811 Mary's older brother, Joseph, discovered the skull of what we now know as an ichthyosaur. About a year later Mary found the rest of it and became quite a national sensation.

  • Throughout her life she went on to make a great many more discoveries, including the first complete Plesiosaurus in 1824, followed by the first complete, and still very rare, Dimorphodon in 1828 – the first pterosaur to be discovered outside Germany.

  • Her gender and lowly social class prevented her from joining the major scientific institutions of the time and many of the people who bought from her claimed her glory for themselves.
  • Take a closer look at the Mary Anning "Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus" letter and read a transcription on show.me.uk

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to find out about fossils in

Torquay Museum
The current exhibition, Britain's First Humans, features the oldest human fossils in Britain - the Boxgrove shin bone, together with the earliest evidence of modern humans in northwest Europe. Learn about the lives of the first pioneering humans to set foot in this country half a million years ago. Until December 12 2015.

Great North Museum Hancock, Newcastle
In Fossil Stories, become a palaeontologist and re-assemble a pre-historic creature using virtual technology. Sound, touch and animation bring alive a world that disappeared millions of years ago.

Westbury Manor Museum, Fareham
John Sibbick is an Isle of Wight based artist who has been drawing and illustrating dinosaurs since he was a boy. His work has featured in many dinosaur books and on television as well as dinosaur galleries in national and regional museums. See 28 of his works in Drawn to Dinosaurs, until January 9 2016.
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