Dhe door to primeval times opens Moritz with the hammer. The eleven-year-old has placed a slab of limestone on its long side. He applies the chisel and begins to drive it into the edge. With the fourth blow, he splits the record in two, each thinner than a paperback less than an inch thick.
There it is: his first fossil. Dark, shaped like a sausage. With the find in hand, Moritz proudly walks to the quarry owner Roland Pöschl. A quick look, a sly grin. Then Pöschl says: “Congratulations, you’ve found a coprolite!” Moritz looks blank. “Petrified droppings”, adds Pöschl – and when he notices that Moritz is disappointed, he pushes afterwards: “maybe from a great shark”.
An hour later Moritz and his friend Elias found a few dozen fossilized squids, as well as ammonites and fossils of fish fins and shells. A stack of plates half a meter high lies next to the two. “We haven’t had a visitor who hasn’t discovered anything,” says Pöschl, “I even have a ‘guarantee to find’ place. We’re in the middle of Jurassic Park here. “
The Altmühltal is one of the richest places in the world
In the “Visitor Quarry Mühlheim” in the Mörnsheim area in the Bavarian Altmühltal, dozens of hobby fossil hunters dig, dig, scrape, dig, and dig every day for fossilized evidence of prehistoric times. The area is just the size of a soccer field.
Stooped or kneeling figures everywhere. A soft yellowish rubble field of broken stones, piles of limestone slabs and grave holes. Many families have come with children, search piles of stones or knock on auspicious plates with tools.
For fossil fans, this is the Promised Land, the region is one of the richest in finds in the world. And Pöschl’s quarry is considered a kind of fillet.
Millions of years ago Bavaria was under water
150 million years ago today’s Altmühltal was covered by the sea. The climate was subtropical and the water was around 26 degrees. Shallow sections alternated with coral reefs, with islands and lagoons in between.
A large bathtub with more than 1000 species of animals and plants. If they died, they were deposited in the mud, were hermetically sealed – and can still be found petrified to this day.
Pöschl is a well-trained man. Now, in Corona times, he wears a face mask with colorful dinosaurs on it, a T-shirt with an ammonite image and a perforated straw hat.
He exudes the excitement that people feel when they are sure they are on the right path in their own lives. In 2008, the now 60-year-old gave up his job at the Sparkasse, bought the property with a partner that he had been looking at for years, opened it to visitors and began digging.
Before and after the visitor opening hours, he still digs himself today. Over the years he moved hundreds of tons of limestone slabs by hand. Then at the end of 2017 the sensation: he discovers a primeval bird in his quarry. Alcmonavis poeschli is now considered the oldest bird ever found. “Every stone can change your life,” says Pöschl.
“The dinosaur was the find of our life!”
Pöschl walks around his premises like a chef through his restaurant, clears away a shovel here, shows a child an ammonite there. He chats with regulars in paleontologists’ German. He patiently shows newcomers how to proceed in order to find something as quickly as possible.
He pulls out the magnifying glass when helpless beginners ask him what they have found: “An Aptychus”, he says, or “Brachyphyllum” or “of course, a Neochetoceras”. In the past, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was there with his daughter. “After half an hour at the latest, even the bodyguards were sitting in their suits in the dust and digging.”
For some visitors, looking for fossils turns into addiction to fossils. In a separate area, Stefan Heilek, 47, works under a sun sail. The computer scientist from Würzburg and his wife Anja come to Pöschl’s fossil kingdom almost every weekend.
“It just grabbed us, looking for fossils is like leafing through the thickest book in the world. You never know what’s coming on the next page. ”A few years ago, the two of them bought a second home in the next village. Your house is full of fossil limestone slabs, tables and tools for preparation.
Dusty stones are stacked in the car, the nicer finds wrapped in newspaper. “We recently found a pleurosaur tail,” says Heilek. “A real highlight.” But it got even better: “We soon noticed that there was also the body of the dinosaur. It was the find of our life! “
Fans of fossils come from Italy or Japan
The fossil dig has a special fascination. It is like meditating with a hammer, chisel, scraper and shovel. Uniform activity, seasoned with tension, crowned by small feelings of happiness.
You rent the tool from the quarry operator, then you start. Ammonites, or at least dendrites, are discovered even when clearing away the limestone slabs. They look like ferns, but are not former living beings, but mineral solutions that have seeped into the lime.
You look for a place in the quarry and begin to detach the horizontally lying slabs from above, to inspect them and to split them with the chisel. So you work your way from top to bottom. A soil thickness of 20 meters corresponds to about two million years of geological history.
There are fossil fans who come from Guatemala, Japan, Italy or Chicago to the famous Mühlheim limestone quarry, less of course this year. Now it is mainly regular guests from Berlin, Hamm or Holland who regularly spend their summer holidays in the dusty heap.
The Munich pharmacist Robert Seidel, 34, takes the train to Solnhofen every weekend, then cycles the last ten kilometers to Pöschl’s prehistoric Dorado and returns home in the evening – 15 to 20 kilograms of rock in his backpack.
Others really want to go to the quarry at night, equipped with UV lamps. Some fossils shimmer yellow-whitish in their light, making them easier to discover.
Treasure hunters are allowed to take almost all finds with them
“Visitors are allowed to take everything they find home with them,” says Pöschl, “everything except it has wings or legs.” There are hardly any disputes among the treasure hunters.
If you discover something that you cannot dig up in one day, you have to think about how to camouflage the site so that no one else can find the half-excavated fossil. However, if you distribute records and small fragments nicely over it, you should make a careful note of the place – dramas should have already taken place.
Moritz and Elias are in such a tricky situation right now. They have long since abandoned petrified excrement and dendrites, their eyes sharpened after five hours.
But the quarry closes in a quarter of an hour, and the two boys don’t get the palm-sized ammonite that they have just discovered out of the ground so quickly. And they came from Ingolstadt, an hour away.
So what to do Elias suggests spending the night directly at the site. To keep watch. Moritz thinks the idea is good. Moritz’s father, on the other hand, says that you can’t do that without a tent. You have to come back tomorrow.
“Only on one condition,” says Moritz: “We are the very first in the quarry!” His father nods resignedly. As they drag the day’s harvest to the car, the straps on their huge blue Ikea bags tear.
Fossils in the Altmühltal Nature Park:
Search and find: There are five stone quarries in the Altmühltal Nature Park, where laypeople can look for fossils on their own. The visitor quarry in Mühlheim in Mörnsheim offers a “guarantee to find” fossils, admission: adults eight euros, children 4.50 euros, tool rental fee 1 euro (besuchersteinbruch.de). Other quarries, for example in Solnhofen (solnhofen.de) and in Eichstätt on the Blumenberg (eichstaett.de).
Forest of the Giants: In the Altmühltal Dinosaur Park in Denkendorf, visitors travel through 400 million years of geological history on a 1.5-kilometer forest walk. There are 70 lifelike replicas of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.
A great museum houses the skeleton of the only teenage tyrannosaurus ever found. Here, too, there is the possibility of digging for fossils. Afterwards, primeval fans eat “Brachiosaurus fries” or “Dino noodles” in the restaurant. Admission: adults 19.50 euros, children 9.50 euros (dinopark-bayern.de).
Fossils with a view: The Eichstätter Willibaldsburg towers over the Altmühltal. In its walls, the Jura Museum shows several hundred excellently prepared fossils from the Jurassic period, which dates back 150 million years. The highlights include an original of the ancient Archeopteryx and the world’s only specimen of the Juravenator predatory dinosaur. The castle, which is currently being renovated, offers beautiful views of the surrounding area. Admission: Adults 5 euros, children and young people free (jura-museum.de).
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