Germany 2019

Germany: Famous Fossil Sites and the Munich Show

In late October 2019, we ran our inaugural trip to Germany, taking in some of the world’s best fossil sites.

Day one – arrival

Today the group gathered at our hotel just outside Frankfurt. We welcomed guests from the UK and the USA.

Day two – Messel Pit & Darmstadt

The first stop of our first touring day was the Messel Pit World Heritage Site, situated in the Bergerstraße-Odenwald UNESCO Geopark. This incredible location is the discovery site of some of the world’s best Eocene fossils that were preserved in an anoxic lake formed in the explosion crater of a maar volcano that erupted 43.7 million years ago. Messel is most famous for its mammals which include 70 specimens of ancestral horses (including pregnant ones), bats, anteaters, pangolins, tapirs, rhinos, and “Ida” the most complete primate fossil known. Other fossils 6 species of crocodiles, turtles, many birds, amphibians, fish and beautiful insect fossils as well as many plant species. The site is one of the world’s ‘Lagerstätten’, where exceptional circumstances have led to the preservation of soft tissues. In this case algal blooms probably led to anoxic conditions on the lake floor.

Our second site of the day was the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt where we saw many of the best Messel fossils on display. In the museum we also saw some Hunsrück Slate fossils (we will visited their discovery site later in the trip) and saw the zoological dioramas for which the museum is famous.

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Day three – the volcanoes of Germany

Today was all about the volcanoes of Germany – we visited both the Laacher See Vulcan Geopark and the UNESCO Vulkaneifel Geopark. Our first stop was the Roman mines at Meurin, where the Romans had quarried tuff for building stones. This tuff formed in Central Europe’s largest volcanic eruption in recent earth history. The eruption occurred 13,000 years ago and was both hydrovolcanic and magma-emitting, producing a Plinian eruption with a 30km high eruptive column which created pyroclastic density currents (PDCs). We were able to walk over the top of the Roman tunnels, which were initially under a layer of pumice 4m thick which erupted in the later stages of the eruption. We were able to see a tree that was carbonized by the PDC, and the path that gases emitted by the tree escaped. Our second stop was on the crater rim of the Laacher See caldera. This caldera was formed in the final stages of the Plinian eruption. The next stop was the Wingertsbergwand. This amazing wall, exposed by quarrying, gives a complete cross section through the pyroclastic flows, surges and pumice fallout of the Laacher See eruption. Most of the material was deposited in a few days with a large amount of this occurring in the first 6 hours. The layers also show dunes and waves showing that the PDCs must have flowed at terrific speeds. The bottom layers are phonolitic but the later layers were produced from less evolved parts of the magma chamber. After lunch in the Vulcan Brauhaus, we had a personalised guided tour of the “Lava Dome” museum and lava cellars. The lava cellars were carved by hand by cutting away basaltic cooling columns in a 200,000-year-old lava flow. The broken columns were then made into mill stones. The cellars started in the Middle Ages and were later used for brewing beer. At the end of the day we relocated to the Vulkaneifel Geopark and made a short stop at the “Eyes of the Eifel” before spending the night in Manderscheid. The Eyes of the Eifel are maars – volcanoes where the magma, upon reaching the water table, caused steam explosions. The craters have since been filled by lakes.

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Day four – volcanoes & Hunsrück Slate

The morning of day four was vulcanological, in the Vulkaneifel Geopark, while the afternoon was palaeontological, in the famous Hunsrück Slate, a Devonian Lagerstätte with exceptional soft tissue preservation. The first stop was Winsborn Scoria cone, which formed 80,000 years ago and now contains a crater lake. Then we visited Pulvermaar; at 11,000 years old, this is the youngest volcano in Germany and forms a perfect circular crater occupied by a lake. After this we moved to the village of Strohn. Here we saw the famous lava bomb. The huge 120 ton ball of lava actually formed by being repeatedly fired away from the eruptive vent, each time rolling back down the inside of the scoria cone receiving a new coating of lava. Additionally in Strohn, we visited a section cut into the side of a scoria cone, and went to the Vulcan Cafe and Museum where the erupting fissure of the scoria cone has been recovered from a quarry and is on display.

We then relocated to Bundenbach where we were given a personalised underground tour in the Herrenberg slate mine, and afterwards we went fossil hunting in a disused slate quarry. The Hunsrück Slate fossils are some of the most important fossils in the world, with soft body parts beautifully preserved as pyrite. The organisms were living on a shallow sea bed and would periodically be catastrophically buried by anoxic sediments that had a low organic content but a high iron content. Once buried, sulphate-reducing anaerobic bacteria broke down the organic material, producing sulfide. This then converted to iron monosulfide and aerobic bacteria oxidized it to pyrite. The mudstone was later converted to slate in the Variscan orogeny and the reason why the fossils can be recovered is that in the Bundenbach area, tight folding means the cleavage and bedding planes are parallel. Fossils recovered include echinoderms, fish and rare marrellomorphs and anomalocarids, which are also found in the 100ma older Burgess Shale in Canada.

Please click on images to enlarge and to read the captions

Day five – Speyer & Swabian Alb Geopark

Today we visited two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a UNESCO Geopark We started the day in Speyer were we had spent the night. We enjoyed a couple of hour’s free time allowing us to visit the Speyer Cathedral World Heritage Site which dates to 1030AD. We then relocated to the Swabian Alb Geopark. Our first stop was the Laichingen Pothole (Laichinger Tiefenhöhle). This is the deepest show cave in Germany and was only discovered in 1982. The cave is cut into Jurassic white limestone, and descends 80m – although only the first 55m is accessible to the public. After this we visited the three Ach Valley caves, that are part of the “Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura” World Heritage Site. These caves are so important because they are the discovery site of the world’s oldest art and musical instruments. The first stop was the Geißenklösterle cave. This cave was the site of the oldest modern human settlement in central Europe, and in it were found 40,000-year-old figures carved in mammoth ivory and three flutes made of swan bones or mammoth ivory. The next cave was Hohle Fels in which more than 80,000 stone tools and 300 ornaments have been found. Mammoth ivory figurines and a griffin vulture bone flute have also been found there, all around 40,000 years old. The most famous figurine is the ‘Venus’ with exaggerated reproductive features that was discovered in 2008. Our final stop was Sirgenstein cave. Excavations of the cave in 1906 show it was previously occupied by both Neanderthals and modern humans.

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Day six – Swabian Alb Geopark

We spent today in the Swabian Alb Geopark. In the first part of the morning we visited Blautopf and the URMU Museum, both in Blaubeuren. Blautopf is a 22m deep kast spring that is connected to a greater cave network. The water is turquoise due to the absorption of red light spectra and reflection from CaCO3 crystals. The URMU museum contains the oldest art and musical instruments in the world, collected from the nearby “Caves and Ice Age Art of the Swabian Jura” World Heritage Site that we visited yesterday. However, publishing photos of these artefacts is not allowed without permission, but images of the artefacts can be seen on the URMU website:

In the second part of the morning, we visited the incredible Urwelt-Museum Hauff in Holzmaden, where fossils of the Holzmaden Shale Lagerstätte are exhibited. We then spent the whole afternoon finding our own Holzmaden Shale fossils in the nearby Kromer Quarry. The Holzmaden Shale fossils have soft tissue preservation, because in the Lower Jurassic the area was rather like the modern Black Sea, with an anoxic bottom but aerated upper waters. The upper waters were full of life including ichthyosaur, plesiosaurs, crocodiles, pterosaurs, sharks, fish, ammonites, belemnites and crinoids attached to floating logs. When the animals died, they sank to the anoxic bottom and were preserved. Holzmaden was thought to be a spawning ground for icthyosaurs and several pregnant specimens, and even one giving birth, have been found. An ichthyosaur with the soft tissue of its fins was found by Benard Hauff in 1923, see image below. Another sensational fossil in the museum is the stunning 18m long seirocrinus crinoid colony attached to a 12m long floating log.

Please click on images to enlarge and to read the captions

Day seven – Swabian Alb Geopark

We spent a third day in the Swabian Alb UNESCO Geopark today. Our first stop was the Steinheim am Albuch meteor crater. At the crater, we first climbed to its rim for a view, but unfortunately on the day we were there, it was obscured by fog! We then visited the museum which was kindly opened especially for us. In the museum, we learnt how 15 million years ago two meteors hit Germany. The smaller meteor created the Steinheim am Albuch crater, while the larger meteor created the Nördlinger Ries crater. When the Steinheim meteor hit the ground creating the crater, the meteor evaporated and compressed the bedrock which rebounded forming a dome in the centre of the crater. The meteors killed all life in a 300km radius, but life soon recovered and a lake formed in the Steinheim crater with the rebounded dome becoming an island. This lake existed for one million years and many fossils have been preserved in it, including ancestral elephants, hedgehogs, hares, martens, bear-dogs, sabre tooth cats, horses, fish and snails. In many ways snails have been the most interesting fossils, because they have been shown evolving into new species in an evolutionary arms race with fish. After the museum we visited the local fossil quarry where we were lucky enough to bump into a geologist from Stuttgart University who showed us around.

Our next stop was the town of Aalen that lends its name to the Aalenian age of the Jurassic. Here we visited both the excellent museum seeing some beautiful ammonites, and the Tiefer Stollen iron mine where we rode a train 400m into the mountain. The iron ore is mined from Jurassic near shore sediments that contain Fe oolites that were concentrated in dunes; these sediments also contain abundant fossils.

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Day eight – Solnhofen Limestone

The touring part of the trip ended on a high point, in the Solnhofen Limestone within which more than 600 different species have been found, including what is perhaps the world’s most famous fossil: Archaeopteryx, a feathered theropod dinosaur and the first known bird. The Solnhofen Limestone is a Lagerstätte and the exceptional preservation is due to toxic anoxic and hyper-saline conditions at the bottom of sheltered lagoons while the upper waters were suitable for life. Violent monsoonal storms would periodically mix the waters killing the life of the upper waters, and washing life into the lagoon from the surrounding reefs. Historically, the limestone has been quarried for building stone and lithographic limestone for printing, and it is this industrial quarrying effort that has exposed most fossils. In total 13 feathered dinosaurs/birds have been found but they are no longer all classified as Archaeopteryx.

Our touring day began with a visit to the spectacular Bürgermeister-Müller Museum in Solnhofen. We spent 2 hours here looking at hundreds of incredible fossils including the Solnhofen “Archaeopteryx” specimen, which was discovered in the 1960s and was the 6th feathered dinosaur specimen to be discovered. In 2001 it was reclassified as Wellnhoferia grandis. We also saw the 11th specimen, which is classified as Archaeopteryx bavarica and was discovered in 2011. The 9th specimen and is also known as ‘Chicken Wings’ and is classified as Archaeopteryx lithographic, the same as the first specimen to be discovered, and was found in 2004. We viewed the world’s most complete predatory dinosaur Sciurumimus whose name means ‘squirrel mimic’ due to its bushy feathered tail. There was also a auperb example of a fish eating a pterosaur. After the museum we spent 3 hours searching for own fossils in the Besuchersteinbruch Mühlheim quarry where we found our own ammonites and parts of a fossil fish. The quarry was the discovery site of the 13th specimen, found just last year. Finally, we visited the Berger museum and the discovery site of the Berlin and the Eichstätt specimens. The day ended in Munich where the final 3 days of the trip will be spent, sightseeing and at the Munich Show, Europe’s largest fossil and mineral show.

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Days nine, ten & eleven – Munich & The Munich Show

The tour group enjoyed free time for the remainder of the tour to explore the fascinating city of Munich and to attend the Munich Show. The Munich Show has been running since 1964 and was originally founded as a barter exchange by some ambitious mineral collectors. It now takes place at the Exhibition Center in Munich, welcoming around 40,000 visitors and boasts around 50,000m2 of exhibition space containing over 1,200 exhibitors. The show runs for three days (one for trade and two for the public). The GeoWorld Travel group had a fantastic time exploring the Munich Show and were lucky enough to see (and in some cases, buy!) beautifully prepared examples of fossils from many of the sites we visited on the trip for sale at the show!

The inaugural GeoWorld Travel trip to Germany was a great success and brought together a great group of people for a very enjoyable journey together. We look forward to doing it all again next year!

Thank you to Justina Cotter for these photos from The Munich Show


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