Duria Antiquior: A nineteenth-century forerunner of palaeoart

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Steven Wade Veatch (USA)

Fig. 1. Duria Antiquior. A watercolour painted in 1830 by Henry De la Beche, who conjured up a vivid picture of an ancient world. It is now in the National Museum of Wales and another copy can be seen at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. (Image is public domain.)

In a breath of inspiration in 1830, English geologist, Henry De la Beche (1796–1855), while exploring new intellectual territories in the emerging fields of palaeontology, painted Duria Antiquior (meaning “a more ancient Dorset”), a representation of a prehistoric Dorset coast. De la Beche’s work was ground breaking – his artwork combined science and art in the first artistic rendering of a paleontological scene, while laying bare the secrets of the past. Before 1830, art depicting the prehistoric world did not exist and these realms were unknown to the public (Porter, n.d.). While it is true that scientists made drawings of fossil animals and exchanged them with each other in private letters, the public had no concept of how prehistoric animals looked. This painting opened people’s imagination to new visions, thoughts and beliefs.

De la Beche’s painting also laid the foundation for a new genre that would later be known as palaeoart, an artistic genre that reconstructs prehistoric life according to the fossil record, scientific understanding and artistic imagination. De la Bache’s brushstrokes of prehistoric time included (literally) all the information known at that time about ancient life and soon became the first teaching graphic used in the classrooms of the Golden Age of Geology, a period from 1788 to 1840 (Clary RM, 2003). Today, this graphic would be equivalent to a PowerPoint slide in a classroom.

De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior brings the viewer face-to-face with creatures that once lived in a coastal sea where these animals fought a deadly battle for survival, a typical theme of nature in the Regency era (McGowan, 2001). The scene is remarkable: a toothy ichthyosaur bites into the long neck of a plesiosaur, while another plesiosaur tries to grab a crocodile on the shore. (De la Beche’s ichthyosaur is minus the triangular dorsal fin and vertical tail fin that, from later fossils found in Germany, we now know it had.)

A turtle quietly dives into the water. What would become coprolites (fossil excrement) drop from a terrified plesiosaur (Davis, 2012). Other creatures patrol the deep waters for food, while two pterosaurs dive toward each other in the sky. Belemnites appear like squids. Hollow ammonite shells rest on the bottom of the sea and crinoids (sea lilies) are portrayed in the lower right corner. Groves of palm trees grow on the shore. All of this is rendered through the painter’s use of a restrained palette of browns, greens and blues.

Another striking feature of the painting is how it is divided. The waterline reveals the action above and below the water’s surface (Rudwick, 1992). The Duria Antiquior is the first example of what is known as the aquarium view that would become a Victorian trend several years later (Clary and Wandersee, 2005). The area above the water line is further divided into two areas of activity – action on the land and in the sky. De la Beche wanted the viewer to be convinced of his portrayal of a prehistoric scene.

De la Beche based the Duria Antiquior on fossils found by Victorian fossil collector, Mary Anning (1799-1847), along the Dorset coast near the resort town of Lyme Regis (Brewster, 2016). Anning was from a poor family, who frequently found themselves on the far side of desperate. To ease these brutal financial circumstances, the family earned money by collecting and selling fossils. As a child, her father would take Mary Anning and her brother, Joseph, fossil hunting by the fossil-rich cliffs near Lyme Regis. They returned home with fossils and, with superior skill, cleaned and prepared them, and then sold them to tourists as curios. Anning, aged 11, continued the family business after her father died of tuberculosis and heavily in debt.

Fig. 2. Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog, Tray. This painting was owned by her brother, Joseph, and given to the Natural History Museum, London in 1935 by Mary’s great-great niece, Miss Annette Anning. (Image is public domain.)

By 1830, Anning was a celebrity among the leading constellation of British geologists for her knowledge and skill in collecting and preparing fossils (Cadbury, 2000). Anning is credited with finding the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be recognised and the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found. Her discovery of these marine reptiles had created a sensation in the scientific community (McGowan, 2001).

Anning frequently found herself in financial straits due to harsh economic times in Britain, and from the unpredictability of finding and selling fossils. Being strapped for money restricted her ability to find fossils. De la Beche wanted to keep her in the field hunting fossils. To that end, he arranged to have prints of Duria Antiquior made and then sold the copies for £2 10s (approximately £213 or $279 today) each (Rudwick, 1992). De la Beche gave the profits – with great enthusiasm – to Anning, so she had more time to hunt for fossils and seashells along the seashore. The painting was a smashing success and, to meet the enormous demand for the prints, the Duria Antiquior was reprinted and redrawn several times.

The Duria Antiquior pushed the boundaries of science and art at the end of the Regency period in Britain. This avant-garde watercolour became the first scene of prehistoric animals interacting with each other in their ancient environment, all based on known science at the time. This was the earliest such art to be widely distributed and helped shape the understanding of prehistoric life on Earth.


Brewster, S. (4 July 2016). Duria Antiquior, A More Ancient Dorset. Retrieved from Eastern Biological: https://easternbiological.co.uk/blogs/news/duria-antiquior-a-more-ancient-dorset

Cadbury, D. (2000). The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Foulsham.

Clary, R. M. (2003). Uncovering Strata: an Investigation into the Graphic Innovations of Geologist Henry T. De la Beche. Retrieved from LSU Doctoral Dissertations: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_dissertations/127/

Clary, R. M., & Wandersee, J. H. (2005). “Through the Looking Glass: The History of Aquarium Views and their Potential to Improve Learning in Science Classrooms. Science and Education, 579–596.

Davis, L. E. (2012). Mary Anning of Lyme Regis: 19th Century Pioneer in British Palaeontology. Headwaters: The Faculty Journal of the College of Saint. Benedict and St. John’s Universtiy, 96-128.

McGowan, C. (2001). The Dragon Seekers. New York: Perseus Publishing.

Porter, S. (n.d.). Paleontology Needs Paleoart. Retrieved from Earth Archives: http://www.eartharchives.org/articles/paleontology-needs-paleoart/

Rudwick, M. J. (1992). Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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