Last week we were visiting my parents who live just by the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, a section of amazing coastline where you can find all sorts of fossils on the beaches. Seeing as my daughters are dino-mad it will come as no surprise that fossil hunting is an activity they enjoy rather a lot (well, to be honest the younger one just likes stones, any sort of stones, pebbles or pieces of rock, especially if you can shove them in a pile of wet sand, but M, my elder daughter, genuinely gets pretty excited about fossils – earlier this year when she had chickenpox her best get-well present was a box of fossils sent by her grandpa :-)).
With parents (and grandparents) who also like fossils it was inevitable that we spent quite some time last week down at the beach turning over rocks and looking for hints of life long ago.
We were quite successful!
Having done a bit of our own fossil hunting we had to re-read our copy of Stone Girl Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Sheila Moxley, which recounts the story of Mary Anning, a young girl from Lyme Regis (just a couple of miles from where we were staying) who made some of the most important fossil discoveries ever in the world, back in the early 1800s.
“When Mary Anning was a baby she was struck by lightning.” With such an arresting opening line this book is always exciting to start reading again! Miraculously Mary survives her lightning strike and with this forms a special bond with her carpenter father. When Mary is a little older he starts taking her to explore the rocks on the cliffs below the town of Lyme Regis and shows her how to hunt for fossils, or Curiosities as they were called, in the soft rock. Just as anyone who has themselves looked for fossils will understand, once Mary finds her first fossil she is hooked, enchanted by the magical creatures they seem to be the bones of. Searching for the so-called thunderbolts, fairy’s hearts and devil’s toenails becomes a passion, quite unusual for a young girl, especially from a poor family.
One day a group of wealthy sisters, the Philpots, visit Mary’s father to ask him to make a display cabinet for their own collection of Curiosities. Mary is so excited to hear that there are other people as entranced by the strange stones found all around Lyme that she offers to show them her own collection, and from this grows an unlikely friendship across ages and class. With the patronage of the youngest Philpot sister, Annie, Mary learns everything she can about the curiosities, but then her father falls ill and dies, leaving the Anning family near destitute.
To help support her family, Mary starts selling her own collection of Curiosities to well-to-do tourists visiting Lyme, but her real breakthrough comes when one day she discovers a virtually complete skeleton of the mythical sea monster. Her father’s friends help her to carry the skeleton down from the cliff and into town where everyone is amazed, and Mary’s reputation as the Fossil Girl is cemented. Soon she is being visited by famous scientists and even the King of Saxony.
The story is a great one for giving a positive role model to girls with its independent spirit of a heroine, who is clever, adventurous and has made a real difference in the history of the world. Mary’s story is told beautifully with great pace, engendering real excitement in the reader, young and old. The only slightly incongruous line in the book is when the sea monster discovered by Mary Anning is carried back to the town “as long as a tree and more than one hundred and sixty-five million years old” – no geological context is given to this rather stark (albeit true) fact, and although I suppose it was the author’s way of marking his support of evolution, the sudden mention of this time scale when the rest of the story has made no mention of the true age of these fossils seems a little odd.
The book is full of illustrations (by Shelia Moxley) in rich deep hues, which are eye catching. Although my daughters certainly like the illustrations I don’t think they do justice to the actual fossils found – a real fossil is something so lovely and tantalizing to hold and consider. In the illustrations in this book this doesn’t come across, so if you or your kids haven’t seen any real fossils I would definitely recommend looking at some in a museum or guide, and if at all possible try to hold one or two in your hands!
Despite the couple of very minor misgivings about this book I would definitely recommend Stone Girl Bone Girl to anyone wanting to provide an aspirational story to their daughter, and for anyone visiting Lyme or other places in the world where fossils can easily be found then I think this is a must-have.
As a result of reading Stone Girl Bone Girl we decided to make our own fossils, to add to our collection. First we gathered some shells from various nooks and crannies around the house. Then I rolled some Sculpey into little balls (one quarter of a packet per ball seemed the right amount) and when they were a nice shape M chose a shell to press deep into the polymer clay. I had to help extract the shells from the Sculpey as we didn’t want to alter the shape of the shell impression too much.
We then cooked the Sculpey as per instruction on the packet (in this case about 45 mins at 130C). Once the baked Sculpey had cooled we used these negative images of the shells as moulds ie we took another bit of Sculpey and pressed it into our first round of Sculpey cakes. Very carefully we prised apart the two pieces of Sculpey (one baked, one raw, so to say) thus creating a positive image of the given shell. We did this for each one and then baked all the new Sculpey cakes as before.
When the second lot were cool we matched up the pieces, and found we had created some rocks….
But not just any ordinary rocks… these rocks can be knocked apart and inside there are fossils!
As well as the psychedelic fossils we also made a dinosaur out of junk, following the instructions (more or less) found in last week’s favourite charity shop find: Making Dinosaur Robots from Junk by Stephen Munzer. To be honest, the best part of this project for the girls was sorting out the junk, as the actual construction of the beast was rather tricky and time consuming. Nevertheless, the final result seemed to please everyone:
Stone Girl Bone Girl:
Whilst we were making our dinosaur we were listening to I am a paleontologist by They Might Be Giants – on their latest album Here Comes Science and Mary Anning by Lulu and the Tomcat. What we’re working up to next is going on a fossil hunt here in the city – looking for fossils in stone used to build offices, make pavements and so on. There are meant to be some great fossils visible in our Town Hall, and we’re waiting to hear back from the curator of our nearest geology museum about other places we could go. Here’s an example of the sort of city fossil hunt I mean. We also want to try out some of the fossil related activities here, from Earth Learning Idea.
There are quite a few other books for kids available about Mary Anning (such as The Fossil Girl by Catherine Brighton, Mary Anning: Fossil Hunter by Sally M. Walker and Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown) but we haven’t yet read them. If you have read them, please let us know what you thought of them! And if you’re looking for a book for adults about Mary Anning, you could try Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, which was published last week.
*Mary Anning was once given the sobriquet of “Princess of Palaeontology”