As our Tales of the Earth series continues with the Mary Anning Collection – three coins celebrating the discoveries made by one of Britain’s greatest fossil hunters – we caught up with palaeo-artist Robert Nicholls to find out more about the inspiration behind his designs. Robert has been creating anatomically accurate reconstructions of natural history specimens for museums and universities around the world for more than 20 years. His work has been published in more than 40 books and he has produced work for broadcasters including the BBC and National Geographic. His previous designs for The Royal Mint include the Dinosauria Collection which featured reconstructions of Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, three of the most iconic creatures in Britain’s dinosaur story.
What did it mean to you to work on these designs?
“It was a huge honour to be asked to create three coins to commemorate Mary Anning. Throughout her extraordinary life, she made many spectacular discoveries that were fundamental to the development of, what was then, the new science of palaeontology. As a working-class woman she faced many barriers. But, against the odds, her fossil hunting skills helped inform the world about extinct creatures from long lost worlds. This in particular is why she is an inspiration to me. Like Mary, I am not an academic but am driven by a passion for fossils and the necessity to sell our wares to put food on the table. During my life, the process of reconstructing prehistoric creatures has become as much a part of me as the sound of my voice. So, you can imagine, an opportunity to reconstruct three of Mary’s most significant discoveries on three coins for The Royal Mint is as good as it gets!”
Can you tell us a bit more about the Temnodontosaurus design?
“The skull illustrated on the Temnodontosaurus coin represents the ichthyosaur fossil discovered by Mary Anning’s brother, Joseph, in 1811. The entire skeleton was excavated by Mary, with assistance from local workmen, in 1811 and is now a part of the London Natural History Museum collection. In life, Temnodontosaurus was a huge ichthyosaur, a formidable predator that grew up to ten metres long! I have illustrated it with subtle counter colouration (a dark dorsum and lighter underside), which helped it hide in the depths of the Jurassic seas to ambush its prey. To the left of Temnodontosaurus is a brittle star, named Palaeocoma, and to the right is a generic pinnate compound fern.”
What about Plesiosaurus? How did you approach this particular reconstruction?
“The flipper fossil illustrated on the Plesiosaurus coin is the forelimb from a complete skeleton discovered by Mary Anning in 1823. This famous fossil is known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, and forms part of the Natural History Museum’s collection. I think Plesiosaurus is an absolutely beautiful creature, with that long neck and four powerful flippers. It must have been a wonder to watch swimming through the Jurassic oceans. Plesiosaurus is often reconstructed with a vertical, fish-like tail, but it is more likely that it had a horizontal, whale-like tail instead. The crinoid, to the left of the Plesiosaurus, is Pentacrinites and to the right is the fern Dicranopteris.”
Finally, Dimorphodon. Can you tell us more about this winged reptile and how you captured its unique characteristics?
“The fossilised wing bones illustrated on the Dimorphodon coin are a part of a famous fossil discovered by Mary Anning in 1828. It was first described as Pterodactylus (Buckland 1829), but it is now known as Dimorphodon macronyx, and again forms part of the Natural History Museum’s collection. Pterosaurs, such as Dimorphodon, were once illustrated as slate grey toothy brutes always on the lookout for man-sized prey to carry off into the skies. However, today we understand more about their anatomy and diverse lifestyles which enabled me to reconstruct Dimorphodon more realistically and gracefully. To the left of Dimorphodon is the horsetail Equisetum and to the right are the leaves of a Jurassic Gingko.” Robert’s coin designs are available now in a range of limited edition precious metal and Brilliant Uncirculated editions. The full collection can be seen at royalmint.com/maryanning.