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Mary Anning's fossil extraction tool is in Lyme Regis
Sue Paz, BBC Dorset
By Sue Paz
BBC Dorset

A fossil extraction tool thought to have belonged to famous hunter Mary Anning
The pointed hammer was used to 'tap pebbles open'

A primitive tool thought to have been used to extract fossils from the Jurassic Coast by famous hunter Mary Anning is housed at Lyme Regis Museum.

Born in 1799, Mary Anning was a self-educated, working-class woman from Lyme Regis.

In fact the museum was the site of her birth.

Some of her discoveries remain some of the most significant geological finds of all time, long after her death in 1847.

'Careful work'

Daphne Baker works at Lyme Regis Museum.

She says: "We have what we hope might have been Mary's own fossiling tool - a type of pointed hammer necessary to tap the pebbles and stones open - where hopefully a fossil would be found inside.

"When you prepare fossils, you have to remove all the extraneous material - clay and limestone - so that you can get right back to the fossilised bones of the animal.

"It's very careful work."

Fossilised dinosaur faeces
One of Mary's discoveries was fossilised dinosaur faeces

Fossil collecting was popular in the late 18th and early 19th century, at first as a pastime, but gradually transforming into a science, as its importance to geology and biology was understood.

Daphne says: "Mary did at one point say that her father, Richard, taught her everything she knew.

"He was a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by mining the cliffs at Lyme Regis and selling his finds to tourists."

Mary soon became well known for her skilled ability.

Daphne explains: "She knew exactly what to look for and had an idea of the anatomy of the creatures she hunted too.

"She also discussed her findings with the famous geologists of the era, such as William Butland and Henry De La Beche."

'Major discoveries'

Although fossil hunting had developed about 50 to 70 years prior to the 1820s, when Mary Anning was making her discoveries, these were mainly made in Europe.

Daphne says: "It was a very new science - people were trying to find out how the world was made.

A sketch of Mary Anning, possibly by geologist Henry De la Beche
Mary Anning 'struggled financially' because of her sex and social class

"And Mary was right at the heart of all the major discoveries which proved the world to be thousands of years older than people first thought.

"Mary found the skeleton of the creature that became known as a the plesiosaur [a type of carnivorous aquatic reptile] and she discovered the first partly flying creature - the pterodactyl.

"She also discovered fossilised dinosaur faeces and all shapes and sizes of ichthyosaur [giant marine reptiles that resembled fish and dolphins].

"In fact, it was the discovery of an ichthyosaur, in the cliffs at Lyme with her brother Joseph, that set her off on her career and fame.

"All the local and Bristol papers recounted the story - so unusual that a child had made such a major discovery."

Although Mary became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, her sex and social class, in a society dominated by wealthy Anglican gentlemen, prevented her from fully participating in the scientific community of early 19th century Britain.

As a result, Daphne says: "She didn't always receive full credit for her contributions and struggled financially for much of her life."

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