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The token that reveals the humble origins of fossil hunter Mary Anning

photograph of gold coloured coin with indentations around the edge. Reads MARY ANNING MDCCX

The name Mary Anning and the date 1810 shown on a token which could have been made for the brilliant fossil finder more than 200 years ago. Courtesy University of Leicester.

Mary Anning’s brass token was found on the beach where she made her amazing fossil discoveries…

It was found on the same beach where Mary Anning made many of her ground breaking fossil discoveries so there is a wonderful sense of providence in Lyme Regis Museum’s Mary Anning token.

The tiny brass token measures just 2.5 centimetres across and experts agree that Anning probably owned the humble brass disc as a child, although there is much conjecture as to how it came to rest on the beach where she plied her trade as female fossil hunter par-excellence in the early 1800s.

Michael Taylor, a visiting fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, found the tiny metal disc, adorned with “MARY ANNING MDCCCX” (1810) on the obverse and “LYME REGIS AGE XI” on the reverse on Church Cliff Beach at Lyme Regis in 2014.

Working with his colleague, Dr Richard Bull, Taylor subsequently concluded that the coin was likely to have been made as a birthday present by Anning’s cabinet maker father, Richard, shortly before his death in 1810.

They say its low-quality production likely rules out the possibility that it was created in commemoration or as a tourist trinket following her untimely death in 1847. As to how it came to be lying on the fossil beach – theories abound – from coastal erosion (of the type that reveals the Jurassic Coast’s fossils) causing a Georgian era rubbish tip to deposit its contents on the beach, to being a remarkable relic from Anning’s beach side house, which was demolished to make way for Lyme Regis Museum in 1889.

photograph of gold coloured token with indentations around edge. reads LYME REGIS AGE XI

This side of the token shows the location Lyme Regis, and age 11. Courtesy University of Leicester.

Portrait of a woman in bonnet and long dress holding rock hammer, pointing at fossil next to a spaniel dog lying on ground.

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning. Via Wikimedia Commons.

photograph of blue plaque to famous fossilist Mary Anning on brick wall

Blue plaque where Mary Anning was born and had her first fossil shop, now the Lyme Regis Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons user: Gaius Cornelius.

After her father’s death the Anning family were for a time forced to take poor relief and one possibility was that the token was used as evidence of an entitlement – such as the hand out of bread. But no such tokens are known to have been used in Lyme during the period and there are certainly none in local collections.

Another theory has it that the token was an identifying disc for Anning’s dog, Tray, but the lack of the dog’s name or a perforating hole seems to rule out that possibility.

It’s modest form and appearance does however tally with Anning’s life story. Self-educated and working-class, she supported the family after her father’s death by selling fossils that she and her father once searched for and discovered together.

As her fame as a talented fossil hunter spread she began to contribute hugely to the early days of the study of fossils and the development of new ideas about extinction and the history of the Earth.

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

photograph of piece of paper with handwritten note and illustration of fossilised dinosaur

Autograph letter concerning the discovery of plesiosaurus, from Mary Anning; sketch of plesiosaurus. © Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

photograph of cliffs overlooking bay with seaweed and wood debris on beach

Lyme Regis © Herry Lawford (CC BY 2.0)

Anning 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.

But despite her opinions being sought by the eminent geologists of the day, she was prevented from joining the major scientific institutions such as the Geological Society of London, which didn’t admit women until 1904. But nine years before her death she was given an annuity by members of the Society and British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2010, 163 years after her death in March 1847 from breast cancer aged just 47, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

The small token she was given as a child may not tell us anything very new about her life, but it offers a tantalising and poignant link to a female pioneer who left a wealth of discoveries and new learning in her wake.

Read Mary Anning’s letter about her discovery of the Plesiosaurus on our Kids’ site show.me.uk

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Lyme Regis Museum

Lyme Regis, Dorset

Built on the site of the home of Lyme’s renowned fossilist Mary Anning, the museum is one of the architectural gems of the town and is packed with fascinating displays.

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