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A saw for a jaw

Mary Anning

The Society’s vast but fragmentary Ichthyosaur skull, found by Mary Anning, once inspired Jules Verne - and has now been restored to permanent display. Its story, told here by Hugh Torrens*, has been a litany of confusion and neglect more complicated than anyone imagined…

Geoscientist 18.12 December 2008

Behold, a strange monster our wonder engages
If dolphin or lizard your wit may defy,
Some thirty feet long on the shores of Lyme Regis
With saw for a jaw, and a big-staring eye

John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), Professor of Greek, University of Edinburgh. From his poem “Stratigraphical palaeontology”.


The recently refurbished foyer of the Society houses a large, anterior-most portion of the skull of a very large Lyme Regis Ichthyosaur. Found by Mary Anning (1799-1847), it now faces her famous portrait. If some frustration can be discerned in her gaze, it may be because the specimen has had a fascinating – and rather sad - history since she discovered it (the whole skull) some time in the 1810s and 20s.

First to be found was the posterior part of this same skull – though this is now lost. This posterior portion was donated in May 1845, well after the front part had reached the Society, and was listed as:

“Gigantic Head of Ichthyosaurus, the remaining portion of a specimen already in the possession of the Society; presented by H. Warburton Esq., the Earl of Eniskillen, R.I. Murchison Esq., Sir Philip Egerton, Bart, M.P., Charles Stokes Esq. and W.J. Broderip Esq., F.G.S. 1,2

This larger, posterior, part had been acquired, by these six Fellows who subscribed funds for its purchase, at the famous auction sale of the James Johnson (1764-1844) fossil collection held in Bristol in April 1845 3,4. Johnson is the first recorded serious collector of Lyme Regis fossils, active there from the early 1790s, and particularly deserves to be remembered. The sale catalogue of his fine collection listed the two enormous posterior heads of Lyme Ichthyosaurs which he had owned, as follows.
The ichthyosaur as rediscovered by Ted Nield, in the Society's basement

The Bristol posterior skull

This skull (Bristol City Museum, now registered Cc 940) was listed, by its imaginative auctioneer, fellow fossil collector Thomas Austin Jr. (1817-?), who later emigrated to Canada, as Lot 360.

“Extraordinary large head of icthyosaurus [sic] platyodon, from Lyme, Dorsetshire. This unique specimen shews the gigantic dimensions the reptilian race attained to the earlier ages of our planet; we also learn from the large size of the creature's eyes which are upwards of 12 inches in their longest diameter, that the waters of the liasic [sic] seas were rendered turbid by those irruptions of matter, inimical to saurian life, which have so frequently enveloped and preserved in the highest perfection their prostrate remains”4.

A drawing of this enormous skull survives, in the collection of Richard Owen drawings at the Natural History Museum in London. It is numbered 117b and annotated by William Clift (1775-1840), curator at the Royal College of Surgeons:

“No. 3 Enormous head of a (supposed) Gavial Aligator [sic] discovered in 1813 near Low Water Mark at L[yme] in Dorsetshire, and now in the possession of Mr Johnson of Bristol. Designed by G[eorge] C[umberland] from the Original fossil. February 1814"

Clift also notes its dimensions as "2' 6" broad, 2‘ 10" long and 11" thick". The enormous eye sockets are recorded as "14 1/2 " long by 7" wide", with some of the sclerotic plates preserved. Ingles & Sawyer5 list this drawing as an "incomplete skull with matrix, dorsal [view], 1 water colour drawing by George Cumberland [1754-1848 of Bristol], annotated". A copy of this drawing was also sent to Georges Cuvier in Paris, which also survives6.

Cumberland later recorded of this specimen that: "Mr James Johnson of Bristol, in 1813, raised an enormous head from low-water mark at Lyme and brought it to Bristol at the expense of twenty pounds; it weighed, I believe near a ton... 7. We know, from a letter dated 28 November 1813, that Johnson "had [then] lately purchased it... he gave 10 guineas for it and 2 guineas for the carriage from Lime or Charmouth where it was found. It is a stupendous thing" 8. Thomas Hawkins9 later confirmed "it has been the appui [support] for many a tale, on account of its large eye sockets. It possesses no specifical identification whatever".

The survival of this drawing enabled Peter Crowther and me to prove, after such a specimen was re-discovered in Bristol Museum's L Shed in 1987, that this Johnson specimen had miraculously survived in Bristol City Museum collections. Here it was displayed in their “Great Sea-Dragons” exhibition in 1989 10 and is now registered Cc 940. It had been purchased by James Naish Sanders (1776-1870)11 for the Bristol Institution, at the Johnson sale, for £27 & 10 shillings, where "there had been warm competition for its possession, and Sanders out bid the British Museum"12. In its 3’ x 2’ 6” wooden frame, it was photographed, on display in the late 1930s, below the now-lost type specimen of Plesiosaurus megacephalus Stutchbury 1846 (photo in Bristol Museum archives), but must have been put in store before the Museum was fire-bombed late in 1940, and forgotten.

Undergoing restoration at the Natural History Museum The history of this particular specimen was recorded in a still unpublished paper read to the Linnean Society in 1814. James Johnson, and his eldest son Dr James Rawlins Johnson (c.1789-1841) FRS, had two relevant papers read to the Society. The first, endorsed "No. 475, read Dec 6th 1814, not printed in Linn. Trans.", noted that they had made an "earlier promise... of drawing up a Paper on the subject of some large fossil bones [already] in my Father's Possession". James Sr. now sent this (dated 25 October 1814), as "An Account of some Fossil Bones of large magnitude found at Lyme in Dorsetshire in 1813". One of these bones is clearly this Bristol skull. Johnson's paper confirms that Mary Anning had found them, including this skull, which may be the second significant discovery she made.

The second 1813 Johnson skull

The only other skull listed in this 1814 paper as also found in 1813, was a polished slab, which James Johnson noted was a:

“Head imbedded in Limestone which I had cut & polished. In this polish'd Specimen, the bones constituting the Maxilla, are very well seen; they are in length twenty-seven Inches, their greater distance twenty-four Inches, their lesser distance (at the Snout, the greater part of which is lost) seven Inches: the row of Teeth on each side supplies a place of nearly twenty Inches in length.”
This is clearly the skull later recorded in the 1845 Sale Catalogue as Lot 341, an "Extraordinary fine polished head of icthyosaurus communis, measuring 22 by 28 inches" 4. Its fate is unknown. These were the only two large skulls in Johnson's collection by 1813.

The London posterior skull

The other posterior skull, which now concerns us, was also listed, as Lot 346, in the 1845 Johnson Sale Catalogue. It was there described as:

“Part of the scull [sic] of an icthyosaurus of an immense size, the wooden snout with teeth &c., attached to this is an exact representation of those [sic] part, which were presented by Sir H. De La Beech [sic], to the Geological Society, having been discovered by Miss Mary Anning, at Lyme ten years after” 4.

This proves that both parts of this one skull had also been found by Mary Anning (1799-1847) 13. She had found the anterior part of the same skull (replicated in wood in the Johnson collection, and which had reached the Geological Society before the 1845 sale) well after the posterior part. Its donation, on 20 April 1827, was recorded as "Portion of a large head of the Ichthyosaurus Platyodon" when given by Henry de la Beche14, 2. Exactly when Mary Anning found the first, posterior, part is not recorded; but it must have been, as we have seen, between 1814 and 1817, to have been at least "ten years" previous to 1827, when this second, anterior, part was donated to London. It may well represent her third significant discovery.

Geological Society Library Plaster replicas of this anterior part were made - one of which survives at the Natural History Museum (reg. no. 1153), as the "plaster cast of the imperfect skull of a very large individual. The postorbital portion is wanting, and the rostrum has been twisted to one side, and broken into several segments. The left orbital region is well preserved" 15. This was presented by the GSL Council to the BM(NH) some time before 1889, when Lydekker listed it. It is now in store at the NHM (Store I, top shelf) and replicates the surviving part at GSL. It is 115cm long.

The earlier history of the complete skull of this beast is recorded in the records of the Bristol Institution, which once retained a cast of the now lost posterior part.

“Specimen number 20. I. platyodon Conybeare, Cast. Portion of the cranium of an animal of immense size; the orbit exceeds 12 inches in diameter. Lower Lias, Lyme Regis [Dorset]. The original [posterior part of this] specimen was in the collection of J. Johnson Esq - the anterior portion in the Museum of the Geological Society, Somerset House - both anterior and posterior portions are now [post 1845] in the rooms of the [Geological] Society (BI MSS Old Catalogue).”
Sadly, this Bristol cast - which might show us the complete post orbital parts of this beast's skull - is now also lost, presumably in a World War 2 fire bombing in November 1940 11. But at least a drawing of the lost part also survives. This is also in the collection of Richard Owen drawings at the NHM. It is numbered 117a and was briefly annotated by William Clift as: "No 4. Profile of Mr Johnson's Fossil found at Lyme. It had probably fallen from the ancient Cliffs and lain long in the Sea on the rocks, as it has a part of a fine brown Patina (Patella?) on the bony part and shell fish had adhered to it. A Limpet is now on the neck. The orbit is here in perspective." The left eye socket was recorded as "14 1/2 inches long". Ingles & Sawyer5 record that it was of an "incomplete skull, left lateral view, 1 water colour drawing, annotated".

Natural History Museum This London specimen is cited in first and second editions of William Buckland's famous Bridgewater Treatise (1837), where he referred to this Johnson skull whose "longer diameter of the orbital cavity measures 14 inches". In later editions (1858, 1869) it was reported to be "in the Museum of the Geological Society of London". Despite this, someone has later wrongly annotated the original Clift drawing of it as "probably now at Bristol"!

Later history

The more recent history of the London beast is depressing. On 14 June 1911 (after J F Blake had carefully catalogued all type and figured specimens in the GSL collection 16) a Special General Meeting of the Geological Society decided to part with most of the Society's large museum collections 17, 2. The Society decided to keep several large, and/or spectacular, specimens then "conspicuously displayed in the Society's Apartments". These, "marked A", were listed17 and this (conjoined) Ichthyosaur skull was one, lazily recorded as "Skull... presented by several Fellows of the Society - unnamed".

A learned Society was never the proper place to keep such museum material, and for much of the next century these specimens have been sadly neglected. A photo of part of the front part of the skull survives, sitting atop the Agassiz Cabinet of Fossil Fish Drawings, beside the bust of Greenough, between 1942 and 196218.

The restored skull in situ, 2008 I became involved after the Geological Curators' Group was formed (May 1974). My notes now prove inadequate, but record that "on 22 March 1979, I saw the rear part of a vast head of Ichthyosaur in the basement of the Society, together with the support plate [the “iron maiden” noted below] for the whole of the [rest of the] skull". I was told to write to a Mr Keep, then the Society's housekeeper, and did on 26 March 1979. David Clayton, then Executive Secretary, replied (24 April):

“Mr Keep is fairly certain that the missing parts of this [Ichthyosaur] specimen are in the basement. Until we are able to bring in a few students to get that room once more into ship-shape order it would be irresponsible for me to guarantee that the parts are there... Your letter is really very helpful as a springboard to undertake recognition of archival material [like this].”

I next reported to John Fowles (1926-2005), in his lesser-known capacity as curator of Lyme Regis Museum (6 June 1979): "I have no Anning news, save the re-discovery in London of the actual ichthyosaur skull which constituted her second specimen [recte third!]. It is an enormous one, rotting in a basement - same old story"19. It was next agreed, with the new Executive Secretary Richard Bateman, that "the specimen should be loaned to the BM(NH)" for display there. I therefore wrote (12 March 1980) to Harold William Ball (Keeper of Palaeontology, who had been a Society secretary) noting that this vast "skull, with fish in a box, ammonites and elk horns" were still lying about, uncared for, in the Society's basement.

He replied on 21 March 1980, that he was unhappy about the condition of the specimens. He wrote:

"I have recommended to Richard Bateman that, following the procedure of the early part of the century (when British material from the Society's collection went to the Geological Museum and foreign specimens to the BM (NH)), the specimens should first be offered to the Geological Museum (later BGS). If they did not wish to accept them, I would be happy to assume responsibility to assure their future safety [here at NHM]”.

At some stage I took, or acquired, two poor quality Polaroid prints, apparently dating from the 1980s, of this posterior part of the skull, in its broken wooden box. Sadly nothing came of these attempts. So in 1991, when Society archivist John Thackray and others wrote the Museum's history they recorded that the posterior part was still at GSL "joined to the piece given by De la Beche on 20 April 1827" 2.

By the time Ted Nield cleared what became the computer server room in the Society's basement (1998), he found only some remains of the skull still languishing there “strapped into a kind of iron maiden…behind the backfill [of "old conference bags and abstract booklet over-runs"]”20. The posterior part had disappeared. As Davies has noted, other valuable items have also vanished over the years 21.


These two huge Ichthyosaur skulls have proved of real significance. They inspired Jules Verne (1828-1905), the father of science fiction, to record his intrepid explorers’ meeting with the real thing (in chapter 23 of his Voyage au Centre de la Terre, 1864). The conflict, illustrated on the original title page, took place between the Plesiosaurus and the Ichthyosaurus, or "fish lizard, the most terrible of the ancient monsters of the deep"…."over a hundred feet long", with a cruel eye, as large as a man's head.

Science has since caught up with fiction; it is now believed that these animals were indeed "capable of diving to depths of 500 metres or more"22. Ryosuke Motani's website 23 now records, from the sclerotic rings of these animals, that ichthyosaurs had enormous eyes. Motani writes: "The largest ichthyosaurian eye that I have seen measured 264mm across, and belonged to Temnodontosaurus platyodon. This is the largest eye ever recorded for any animal (when I wrote the paper in Nature, the largest I had then seen was 253mm)."

With help from Ryosuke Motani, I can report that his 253mm beast is NHM R215 (from Lyme Regis, presented by Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) in 1882). The 264mm beast was M3577a, on display in Cardiff in 1986-1988. This specimen was originally given to the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution in 1825 by the engineer and Kennet and Avon Canal agent, William Henry Eastwick. (1780-1854)24. It was recorded in 1826 as "Large Fragment of Head of Ichthyosaurus shewing the plates of the Eye, from Lyme Regis" 25.
The London anterior skull has now been beautifully restored by the NHM’s curators and placed on permanent display. An attempt should now be made to account for all those specimens listed in 1911 as having then been "retained" by the Society.


My thanks go to Wendy Cawthorne, Sandra Chapman, Roger Clark, Peter Crowther, the late John Fowles, Ryosuke Motani, Tom Sharpe, Michael Taylor and Tim Unwin.  All photographs by Ted Nield.


  1. QJGS 2, iii & vii & Proceedings GSL, 2, AGM 20 February 1846
  2. Moore D.T., Thackray J.C. & Morgan D.L, 1991, A short history of the Museum of the Geological Society of London, 1807-1911, with a catalogue of the British and Irish accessions, and notes on surviving collections, Bulletin of the British Museum Natural History (Historical Series), 19 (1), 51-160.
  3. Ausich W.I., Sevastopulo G. D. & Torrens H.S., 1999, Middle Nineteenth-Century Crinoid Studies of Thomas Austin, Sr. and Thomas Austin, Jr.: Newly Discovered Materials, Earth Sciences History, 18 (2), 180-197.
  4. Austin Thomas, senior, 1845, A Catalogue of the Celebrated and extensive Collection of Fossils, Minerals &c, the genuine property of James Johnson, Esq., deceased, collected at a very considerable expense, which will be sold by auction by Mr. Austin... on 15th day of April 1845 and following days, Bristol; Simeon (copies at Natural History Museum and GSL).
  5. Ingles J.M. & Sawyer F.C., 1979, A catalogue of the Richard Owen collection of Palaeontological and Zoological drawings in the British Museum (Natural History), Bulletin of the British Museum Natural History (Historical Series), 6 (5), 109-197.
  6. Taquet P., 2003, Quand les Reptiles anglais traversaient la Manche: Mary Anning et Georges Cuvier, Annales de Paléontologie, 89, 37-64.
  7. Cumberland G., 1829, Some Account of the Order in which the Fossil Saurians were Discovered, Quarterly Journal of Literature, Science and the Arts, 27, 345-349.
  8. Dance S.P., 2003, Letters on Ornithology 1804-1815 between George Montagu and Robert Anstice, Wigton, GC Book Publishers,
  9. Hawkins T., 1840, The book of the great Sea Dragons, London, Pickering.
  10. Taylor M.A., 1989, The other dinosaurs, New Scientist, 11 March 1989, 65.
  11. Taylor M.A. & Torrens H.S., 1987, Saleswoman to a New Science: Mary Anning and the Fossil Fish Squaloraja from the Lias of Lyme Regis, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, 108, 135-148.
  12. Dorset County Chronicle, 8 May 1845
  13. Torrens H.S., 1995, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew", British Journal for the History of Science, 28, 257-284.
  14. Transactions GSL 2 (2) in: "Donations to the Cabinet of Minerals 1823-1829" (unpaginated); Proceedings GSL, 1, 47)
  15. Lydekker R., 1888-1889, Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia and Amphibia in the British Museum (Natural History), parts 1-3. London: Museum Trustees.
  16. Blake J.F. 1902, List of the Types and Figured Specimens recognised by C. D. Sherborn FGS in the Collection of the Geological Society of London, London: Taylor & Francis.
  17. Anon., 1911, Minutes of Special General Meeting 14 June 1911, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 67, pp. cii-ciii.
  18. GSL archives - ex Nancy Morris coll.
  19. HST letter to Fowles, now in Harry Austin Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Houston - copy in author’s own collection.
  20. Ted Nield email to HST, 3 April 2006.
  21. Davies G.L.H., 2007, Whatever is under the Earth: The Geological Society of London 1807-2007, London: Geological Society.
  22. Motani R., et al., 1999, Large eyeballs in diving ichthyosaurs, Nature, 402, 747.
  23. www/
  24. PCC will proved 14 August 1854
  25. Annual Report of the Committee of the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution for the year 1825, 1826, Bath, Meyler.
* Prof. Hugh S Torrens H: Lower Mill, Madeley, Crewe, CW3 9EU. E: [email protected] T: (+44) (0)1782 583754; F: (+44) (0)1782 751357.