On Dragons & Snakestones

I was recently interviewed by the writer and photographer Colin Pantall about my new photobook Dragons & Snakestones which is about the life and work of the fossils hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning of Lyme Regis.

The book is currently in crowdfunding, click here to see a film about the project and buy a copy:

When did you get interested in Mary Anning and why?

I first found out who she was in spring 2014 when I was at Lyme Regis for a day out. I was walking on the beach and saw a big group of people all looking at the floor which made me curious. I spoke to some of the people who told me they were on a fossil walk and pointed me towards the group leader. I started asking a few questions and he mentioned Mary Anning — a name I hadn’t heard before — and told me a little bit about her prolific fossil finding and the significance of some of her discoveries. He then also told me about her being written out of history and the lack of recognition that she got because she was a woman and very poor.

Fossil Hunters. Lyme Regis, 2014

Prior to this I had been working very loosely with an idea which started when I was taking photographs in the museums in Bristol and Cardiff. I was interested in looking at the links between the creation, control and dissemination of knowledge through state and cultural institutions and the resulting narratives that give meaning to our lives. So this story immediately appealed. Initially I thought I could work this into that project, but quickly learnt it was too big and ultimately a different work.

Before I got to look at the letters, notebooks and correspondence in her own hand I looked at where else she turned up in other written histories. Some of these contained these wonderfully fantastical stories. In a book by G Roberts about the history of Lyme Regis, written in 1823 when she was arguably at her most prolific, there is an account of her surviving a lightning strike as a baby.

‘Mary was taken by her nurse, Aug 19, 1800, to the rack field, where some equestrians were to perform… The weather was intensely hot and sultry; the clouds seemed to indicate the approach of a thunder-storm… At about a quarter to five, P.M., a passing cloud discharged a heavy shower, which caused those assembled to effect a hasty retreat… [some] went home; but the less prudent sought shelter under cover of some lofty elms that stood in the field. A vivid discharge of the electric fluid shortly ensued, followed by the most awful clap of thunder that any present ever remembered to have heard. After a momentary pause, a man gave the alarm, by pointing to a group that lay motionless under a tree. All grown persons were dead: the infant, Mary Anning, upon being put into warm water, revived: she had sustained no injury… She had been a dull child before, but after this accident became lively and intelligent, and grew up so.’

What’s not to get excited about with stories like this!? There are others too, and initially this project was me chasing these mythologies around and trying to make sense of them photographically. That is until I started reading her notebooks and letters and realised that the real and far more important story was about her labour, her struggle and her determination to understand the world around her.

What are the key things about her work that interested you?

So many things. First of all the fossils, and having an excuse to be around these relics of deep time. Being able to handle some of these specimens was like making contact with another world and an utter privilege.

I love that she was right about so many things that her education on the beach gave her, like the links between certain species and the realisation that ‘coprolites’ were fossilised faeces (she was mocked for that).

I was fascinated by the way that she described the things she found and the sales patois she developed when writing to the museums and collectors, and her taking on of the establishment that exploited her ‘I do so enjoy opposition amongst the big wigs’

Entrance to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge, 2017

But I think the key draw here was the unravelling of all of the injustices that she suffered in the face of her relentless hard work.

How much do you think the issues of class and gender that stopped her being fully recognised are still relevant today?

She learnt to look for fossils with her dad who used to find ‘curies’ to sell to tourists that visited the area. He was a religious dissenter and, it would seem, pretty politically driven, often involved in strikes and protest. In 1800 he was identified as one of the ringleaders of a mob which rioted about food shortages.

You only have to look at the queuing we still have at food banks, which are much like the charitable causes her family leant on, to know that not much has changed.

There is a visible difference in how poverty looks in this country today, as it is possible to be broke and reliant on food banks yet have a 50-inch plasma TV on the wall and an expensive mobile phone. These things are made possible by the illusion of credit which allows people with no income goods which they pay for at thousands of percent above the production cost and which ‘holds’ them in a permanent state of debt to the system that defines their class.

I know this, I have experienced it myself growing up.

This masks the reality of modern poverty, and is useful evidence for those that are ideologically opposed to social equality to point their fingers at to try and maintain the status quo.

I’d say that the wealth gap in the UK today is as great if not greater than it was in Mary Anning’s day, given the lack of access many have to the basics of life. Can you imagine the carnage if it weren’t for the NHS and access to free medicine? It’d be a Boschian-nightmare, and the cogs are whirring on the dismantling of what remains of the benevolent state.

In terms of issues of class and gender being related specifically to this field, there is a bit of a legacy. I think that there is a great deal more gender equality within the scientific communities themselves, but the structures of society are still geared up to make clear definitions between the genders with things like career choices.

Whilst making this project I have worked with many scientists and curators in the various museums, but I have also worked with the contemporary fossil hunters, those doing what Mary Anning did.

One guy I’ve spent a couple of afternoons fossiling with, Paul Crossley, is kind of representative of the legacy of the problems Anning faced. He’s been working the beach for years, been fossil hunting since he was five and has made some remarkable discoveries — such as the first known iridescent coprolite from a squid and a new species of lace wing beetle — both are now in the collections of museums.

He told me that if you donate a new specimen to a museum, you can name it — but if you sell it to them, they also acquire the rights to naming. This is almost set up to deny a recorded legacy to anyone that is reliant on the income that fossil hunting provides.

Paul’s story also echoes some of the opposition I’ve met when referring to Anning as a palaeontologist and scientific thinker, which still causes some debate. I’m not sure I’ve met many people as knowledgeable in their field as Paul is in his — for example, he anticipated the existence of the iridescent coprolite he discovered, and then went and found the first one! If that’s not scientific thinking, I don’t know what is. Yet he is still coy about referring to himself as a palaeontologist because he hasn’t been through university and also works a ‘normal’ job.

There are many images of markings in your book? Why are these important?

I think for me it was a way into the story proper. When I started this project there were just a few signs of interest in her outside of the worlds of science. Many stories have appeared since, but they are largely biographical. The physical marks she left us were interesting to me because they refer directly to her activity. The looking, the working the stone with her tools, the cleaning…

Detail of SM J.35189, Icthyosaurus platydon, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science, Cambridge, 2017

These marks reveal. They reveal the specimens buried in mud and stone, but they also reveal the processes she went through in creating new knowledge which shapes and gives meaning to our lives.

Her letters and drawings feature heavily in the book too but as much as the content of these are significant, I was also interested in the way she wrote — both her use of language and the physical markings. She didn’t have a schooling, and this is reflected in the spelling and grammar, but the way that she describes, and her sales talk is fascinating, as is the often overly elaborate handwriting. One of the first photographs in the book is of the postage side of a letter to Charles Konig, one of the ‘big wigs’ at The British Museum. Her calligraphic hand on this letter is fascinating and I’m still not sure if she was trying to fit in or taking the piss. Either way I love her for it.

Detail of Letter from Mary Anning to Charles Konig, concerning the sale of a Pterodactyle , 1829, Natural History Museum Archives, London, Photographed 2018

It is all of these markings that bring us back to the thing that is most important; her labour and her thought.

Why do you think there is an upsurge in interest in her work now (with the film and 50p piece)?

I see her popping up all the time at the minute because there are many movements and ideas that her story fits with. But I think there is a danger perhaps of generalising and shoehorning her into too many contemporary narratives. She is a hero; the things that she endured, the relentlessness of her labour ostensibly to put food on the table, and the dignified way she took on the establishment.

So many people in society are never recognised for their hard work and are still fighting the establishment. The 1% payrise for NHS workers for example, against the 40% for Cummings or the massive handouts to chums in business to spaff up the wall for a few facemasks and an app that doesn’t work. We need heroes, and she is one.

Then we have the Trump/Johnson/Putin/Xi/Bolsanaro/Kim posturing of the past decade, so we have an urgent need for strong women to give a bit of steer away from this hellish man-made disaster we are experiencing. The real problem is that the establishment concedes to these positive and progressive narratives through its PR machines to appear a certain way but continues to legislate and organise in favour of a traditional white patriarchy.

Anning has become a role model for young children now that she appears in the national curriculum, but I think we have to be careful about the motivations of the state here. Often movements or ideas that are seen as dangerous are just absorbed into the structures of society where they can do least damage. Jonny Rotten sells butter now, let’s not forget. Her rebellious spirt, revealed in her writings, must prevail and we mustn’t let the curriculum soften her. She was tough, and I doubt if she would have sold out, so it would be a disservice to her legacy to do that for her.

You’re doing a kickstarter but you’re a reluctant social media person. How does that fit?

Well, I’m not sure but I’m hoping it will. I’ve always had a low-level anxiety around the idea of selling myself and trying to persuade people to be interested in my work. Social media is still a little alien to me. I mean, I get it and prior to the book I used it occasionally. But I couldn’t tell you how Instagram TV works. Struggle getting my head around ‘stories’…

I am slightly hamstrung when it comes to promoting my book as my problematic relationship with social media means I have no following, and no one beyond my students knows who I am. So, I am very much dependent on other people showing an interest in it, sharing it and feeling it’s interesting enough to buy or talk about.

I’m fully aware that this is part of the job and that if I don’t yell out into the crowd and hope that people are interested that the alternative is just never being heard, but these anxieties went into overdrive when it came to trying to promote work about a person who was denied any recognition for far greater effort than I have made.

When I exhibited this as a work in progress three years ago at Lyme Regis Museum I struggled to even put my name on the exhibition. The museum is built on the site of Mary Anning’s former home, so for me it had to be the first place that the work was shown. After travelling around the country photographing the fossils in the museums in which they now sit there was something poetic about being able to bring them back to her home.

Construction of The Mary Anning Wing of Lyme Regis Museum, Lyme Regis, 2017

However, I had a bit of a crisis when it came to putting my name on the wall. She had risked her life on a daily basis going out and finding these things, spent months digging them out and cleaning them and preparing them for sale and was never recognised. Then along comes privileged 21st century lad who makes a few photographs and has the temerity to put his name on her bedroom wall!

Of course, I have come to place now where I am comfortable with the work, and that it has a function and a purpose, and that my voice in amongst all the others has something worth saying.

Why should people buy your book?

My feeling is that we should be publishing accounts of hidden or unknown histories — even if Mary Anning’s story is now largely understood to have been incorrectly recorded first time around it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the foul play by the establishment.

Of course, any account that is made is just another positioned expression in amongst many others.

Francis Lee’s film ‘Ammonite’ which comes out later this week is going to be interesting. It is certainly the loudest shout about her name the world has ever heard, and it’s great that she is now being given the attention she deserves.

Many people have a problem with the film, which essentially uses Mary Anning’s new-found fame as a vehicle to tell a period love story between two historical women. Lee said in an interview that there are many examples of queer history being straightened, and that he is just queering a history for which there is no permissible evidence of any heterosexual relationships.

There is a letter included in my book from Anning to Charlotte Murchison (her love interest in the film) which could be interpreted as revealing a little more than a friendship, and I’m sure that Francis Lee also read this and has taken a little licence with it. At times perhaps I’ve taken a few liberties with the information presented to me in my determination to prove that she was a scientific thinker and not just a collector, but of course any work is as much about the conclusions arrived at by the author.

The film looks great and I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m delighted that Lee has used Anning to start different conversations around gender and sexuality. Though I’m told that ‘Ammonite’ doesn’t really explore her science, nor celebrate her breakthrough moments and this is why you should buy my book!

Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.

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