Jurassic monsters of the abyss

A number of other historical finds of isolated fossil bones and even parts of skeletons were made during quarrying operations throughout much of the English outcrop and in Germany during the eighteenth century and occasionally they were pictured in books. We only know anything about them from these published records because few of the actual specimens have survived or can now be identified in existing museum collections. One extensive collection, made by the famous Scottish anatomist John Hunter, formed the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London and was catalogued by Richard Owen in 1854. From Owen's catalogue, we know that it contained 29 specimens of marine reptile fossils.

John Hunter, 1728-93, Scottish surgeon to King George III and collector, brother of another collector William Hunter. His collection of 10,563 specimens was bought by the British government in 1795 for £15,000 and formed the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Unfortunately, most of the collection was bombed into oblivion in 1941, during the Second World War.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, while such finds were regarded as the remains of marine creatures, 'the irresistible proofs of an Universal Deluge, and of a new world risen from the ancient ocean', it was not clear exactly what kind of animal they belonged to: they could be crocodile, lizard or even whale. Nevertheless, the problem was soon to be resolved.

Constant erosion of coastal cliffs made of Lias strata in Yorkshire and Dorset by the sea, especially by winter storms, broke fossils from their rock tombs and tumbled them onto the beaches. The most prized fossils were the rare skeletons of 'seadragons' preserved in the thin limestone layers. The intervening black shales are more easily weathered, so that the limestones stand out from the cliff face as ledges until they break away under their own weight and tumble down onto the beach. Unless quickly recovered, they are soon pounded to unrecognisable pieces by the waves.

Local people, who traditionally scoured the beaches for anything useful or saleable, were well aware of the strange shells and bits of bone that turned up after the storms, but it was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when fossils acquired some value, that they bothered to recover the heavy and awkward petrifications from the beaches. Some of the most spectacular of these early discoveries came from Lyme Regis at the southern end of the outcrop, where many of them were found by a remarkable Dorset woman, Mary Anning and her family.

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