Field of Science

Dr. Faust and his Fossil Collection

"When I consider the efforts I made in this subject, no mountain was to high, no well to deep, no gallery to narrow and no cavern to puzzling."

The German advocate, author, poet, politician and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was also strongly interested in natural sciences and in his lifetime investigated various geological and paleontological phenomena.
One of the most extensively studied object of interest laid just before his
home, or better said under it. In 1775, Goethe, already a highly regarded author, was invited to the court of Duke Carl August in the city of Weimar, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Goethe became an enthusiastic collector of mineralogical, paleontological and geological curiosities and in the years 1780 to 1832 he collected, exchanged and purchased more than 18.000 rocks, minerals and fossils.
The fossils alone comprise 718 specimens; most notable in this collection are samples of the quaternary travertine of Weimar and surrounding area, with over 100 specimens of a large variety of plant and animal fossils.
The underground of Weimar consists of Mesozoic limestone; the groundwater is therefore supersaturated of calcium carbonate and springs and rivers ar
e often surrounded by deposits of calcareous sinter or travertine. During warm periods in the Quaternary the deposition of travertine was even stronger than today, many bones or remains of animals and plants became embedded and conserved in this rock.

The most remarkable fossils recovered are the fragments of tusks and molars of the interglacial woodland elephant Palaeloxodon antiquus, fragments of the jawbone
and teeth of the woolly rhinoceros Dicerorhinus kirchbergensis, bones and teeth of the ice age bison Bison priscus mediator, teeth from a horse species (Equus taubachensis), bones of the brown bear (Ursus arctos) and antler fragments of red deer (Cervus elaphus). A very exceptionally fossil is a "petrified" egg from a crane (Grus grus).

Fig.1. Original specimen from the collection of Goethe of a fragment of jawbone with a single tooth of Cervus elaphus.

Fig.2. Fragment of jawbone with a single tooth of Stephanorhinus (Dicerorhinus) kirchbergensis.

Fig.3. Equus sp. teeth.

Goethe dealt with the idea to publish his geologic and paleontological observations and on 8, January 1819 he contacted the editor and geologist Carl Caesar von Leonhard (1779-1862):

"We discovered in the vicinity of Weimar exquisite fossil bones: a half jawbone with teeth's, similar to the Palaeotherium, with remains of elephants, deer, horse and other animals that can be found together."

However due to various political offices and duties that Goethe occupied he never managed to finish this publication.

Some years later, in 1821, the amateur geologist Christien Kieferstein (1784
-1866) contacted Goethe asking about information about the outcrops of the particular rock found in the city of Weimar. However Goethe at the time was not able or willing to provide the requested information and only two years later, after contacting the son of Goethe - August Goethe - Kieferstein finally received a stratigraphic description and some samples of the travertine.

August Goethe had visited the "tuffaceous caves at the city limits", during the 8, and 11, August 1823, where he "collected samples and described exactly the found layers and corresponding rocks - sending the notes the very same day to Kieferstein."
In September his father returned to Weimar after a short business trip and now together they returned to the quarry and corrected some details in the previously drawn stratigraphic column.
August intended to publish all these observations, but unfortunately his early death in the year 1830 prevented this intention.

The handwritten notes and sketches are conserved today at the Goethe and Schiller archive in Weimar, they were used in the 20th century for the stratigraphic correlation between modern drill campaigns and old, today lost, quarry outcrops, so more than 180 years later parts of the geological work of Goethe was published .

Fig.4. "Stratigraphic column of a quarry, circa 10 minutes south of Weimar and just right of lake Chau after Belvedere", redrawn after Goethe & Goethe 1823 (from STEINER 1996): Symbology according to the original notes of Goethe: 01. Numbering of layers 02. Plant imprints (mostly stems) 03. Molluscs and mammalian remains in travertine 04. Compact travertine layers 05. Brittle travertine layers 06. Chara and bryophyte travertine 07. Mammalian remains 08. Molluscs 09. Plant stems 10. Silt 11. Sand 12. Solifluction horizon with pebbles 13. Recent soil.

Fig.5. The generalized stratygraphy of the travertine of Weimar-Ehringsdorf after modern considerations:
The base of the succession is composed of a cemented conglomerate with crystalline and carbonate pebbles. These coarse river deposits are overlain by brownish to yellowish stratified silt and sand layers, interpreted as alluvial deposits. Then follows the "lower travertine", an alternation of yellow compact and brittle travertine - the lower part of the Eemian Ehringsdorf-formation.
The lower travertine is separated from the upper by the so called "Pariser", the name of this layer derives from the description by the botanist Dr. Herbst in 1860 as "Poröser Kalktuff", meaning simply "porous calc tuff". In the quarry it is recognizable as brown, loamy stratum (here forming the step of the quarry) that contains rare bones and teeth from small vertebrates. The "upper travertine" is similar to the lower, but differs in a gently greyish colour and the presence of various pedogenetic horizons' ("Pseudopariser").

Fig.6. Even today it is not unusual to discover bone fragment in the Ehringsdorf-formation.


STEINER, W. (1996): Die Parkhöhle von Weimar. Abwasserstollen, Luftschutzkeller, Untertagemuseum. Stiftung Weimarer Klassik.

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