New light is shed on Mary Anning fossil find

A FOSSIL found on the beach in Lyme Regis by 14-year-old Mary Anning more than 200 years ago has gone on display at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

It’s part of the skull of a marine reptile known as an ichthyosaur and has been in the museum’s collection since 1845 but has not been on display for over 30 years.

Following conservation work funded by Bristol Museums Development Trust and the Geologists’ Association, the skull – from a species of ichthyosaur known as a Temnodontosaurus  –  has earned a permanent place alongside the museum’s Dinosaur Gallery in an exhibition entitled Making Waves,

The work on the specimen unexpectedly revealed new and scientifically important information. The skull had been mounted in mortar in a wooden box for over a hundred years, with the lower portion hidden. When the wood and mortar were removed, so that a new mount could be made, several deep tooth marks were found on either side of the skull. Estimates suggest that the ichthyosaur would have been about 7m long when alive, but it appears to have been eaten by something even larger.

Dr Dean Lomax, the UK’s top ichthyosaur expert, and Nigel Larkin, the palaeontological conservator who worked on the fossil, are researching the new information with the aid of  a high resolution digital 3D model. 

Mr Larkin said: “It was an honour to work on a fossil found by Mary Anning, particularly one she found when so young. Even though the fossil is very 

large, heavy and fragile, it is a thing of beauty. To find new information about the specimen when working on it was one of the highlights of my career.”

Dr Lomax said: “I first examined this important fossil in 2011, but it required special cleaning before it could be studied in detail. As part of my research on ichthyosaurs, I’ve examined practically every single ichthyosaur that Mary Anning found, or at least the ones we know of. It amazes me that even after 200 years her discoveries, like this one, continue to reveal new information.”

On display with the newly conserved skull will be a life-size reconstruction of a complete Temnodontosaurus skull and a painting of what the giant marine reptile might have looked like swimming in the early Jurassic seas, both created by sculptor and artist, Tone Hitchcock.

A range of fossils, palaeontology tools and manuscripts, including a letter from Mary Anning, will also be on display along with two short films – one showing the conservation of the fossil and another showing how the Temnodontosaurus was brought back to life through the reproduction of the model skull and the painting.

Until April 30, the museum will also display a maquette of the Mary Anning statue that was unveiled in her home town of Lyme Regis in 2022. The statue was inspired by 11-year-old Evie Swire.