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Poet and Paleontologist – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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The German lawyer, author, poet, politician and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (born August 28, 1749-1832) was also a mining engineer and quite interested in geology and paleontology.

In the year 1775, Goethe, already a highly regarded author, was invited to the court of Duke Carl August in the city of Weimar, where he will remain for the rest of his life. Goethe was an enthusiastic collector of mineralogical, paleontological and geological curiosities and between 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 100 fossils found in the quaternary deposits of Weimar.

The underground of Weimar consists of Mesozoic limestone. The local groundwater is therefore supersaturated with calcium carbonate and springs and rivers are often surrounded by deposits of travertine. During warmer interglacial periods in the last Ice-Age the deposition  was even stronger than today and many remains of plants and animals became embedded in the travertine layer, on which today the city of Weimar sits.

The most remarkable fossils recovered from the travertine of Weimar 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 horse (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).

In January 1819 Goethe contacted geologist Carl Caesar von Leonhard (1779-1862):

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

Fig.1. Original specimen from the collection of Goethe, 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.

However Goethe never published these discoveries.

In 1821 the amateur geologist Christien Kieferstein (1784-1866) asked Goethe about the outcrops of the particular rock found in 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 rock samples.

August Goethe had visited the “tuffaceous caves at the city limits” in 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.

The notes and sketches are conserved today at the Goethe and Schiller archive in Weimar, however only 180 years later part of the work was published, as supplement to modern stratigraphic investigations.

Fig.4. Quarry in the travertine of Weimar-Ehringsdorf.

Fig.5. Even today it is not unusual to discover large, even if fragmentary, bones in the Ehringsdorf-formation.


STEINER, W. (1996): Die Parkhöhle von Weimar. Abwasserstollen, Luftschutzkeller, Untertagemuseum. Stiftung Weimarer Klassik: 62

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. athenacgy 4:12 pm 08/28/2014

    Very interesting article! It shows such a different perspective on Goethe’s many accomplishments. Thank you so much for the report!

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