Never before have there been so many fossil collectors as today. Leisure and mobility, but also broad-based education have made it possible. While in former times the collectors belonged to the rural intelligence of priests, lawyers, teachers, doctors and pharmacists, today the hobby has reached all classes. Fossil collecting is closely connected with paleontology. Thus, many paleontologists of the 18th and early 19th centuries were themselves accomplished collectors who privatized or had completely different professions. Georg Graf zu Münster, who built up the most important collection of his time in the German-speaking world, worked as an administrative officer in the government of Upper Franconia in Bayreuth and the vertebrate palaeontologist and founder of the "Paläontographica", Hermann von Meyer, as treasurer in the first German Bundestag in Frankfurt. An academic subject palaeontology was only established after the middle of the 19th century.
So how does one become a fossil collector today? What drives him? Why does he invest time and money in a hobby that most contemporaries rather shake their heads and lack understanding than admiration and recognition? First and foremost it is certainly an elementary interest in nature and its things, in its beauty and diversity. And the collector does not have to kill any butterflies or bugs. But there are also quite different motives, namely
Depending on the motif and talent, three groups stand out from the large number of collectors who can achieve remarkable achievements. These are on the one hand the taxidermists and on the other hand the specialists. They devote a lifetime to certain groups of organisms, certain stratigraphic units or their "domestic quarry", which they cultivate over decades with an intensity that would not be possible for any professional palaeontologist. And finally, there are the hardworking people who derive a business idea from their hobby and become self-employed as taxidermists or fossil dealers. However, these are not to be spoken of any further, even if they play a considerable role as service providers in the fossil world - also for science and museums.
Some collectors have set up a professional taxidermy workshop at home in the basement and have achieved mastery in the use of pneumatic gravers and fine blasting equipment and are in no way inferior to professional taxidermists. With patience and a sure hand, these precision engineers free trilobites with stem eyes and adventurous spines or fish with fragile fusion scales from hard concretions. Collectors have developed the transfer technology that made the preparation, sustainable conservation and museum presentation of fossils from the Messel Pit possible in the first place. Others have dedicated themselves to fossil photography and have done technical pioneering work, says Dr. h.c. Helmut Tischlinger, a specialist in the visualization of fossil structures under ultraviolet light, is invited by institutes and museums and asked for advice.
Among the specialists there are some who know their field no less well than the professional palaeontologist. Such people become especially important when they have dedicated themselves to such organismic groups that have been scientifically orphaned. However, most collectors always attract the same favourites: ammonites, trilobites, snails, sea urchins and sea lilies, which are also the focus of palaeontology. If a collector then publishes his findings according to the rules of science, he can blur the difference to the professional palaeontologist. However, such specialists also run the risk of getting carried away, isolating themselves with their views and finally adopting almost sectarian positions. A few autodidacts like the echinoderma specialist Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Hess from Basel have become world-renowned authorities in their field, as can be seen from their extensive publication lists.
Tensions between collectors and scientific palaeontology at museums or the state conservation of archaeological monuments, which arose in the 1980s from legal regulations on fossil protection in individual federal states, have apparently eased. Most collectors have accepted that a specimen of a publication must also be deposited in a public collection and be available for further research. Anyone who does not agree with this remains anonymous with his find in the locked drawer - but this does not correspond to the usual collector's mentality, because most people want to go public with their special find. If a special piece is to be published, the collector must part with it. As compensation, he then deserves the honour of having served science. If his find becomes the type of a new species or even genus, the author can name it after the collector and thus "immortalize" him. But this kind of reverence the paleontologists first had to recognize as self-evident. Where there is mutual trust, the simple transfer of ownership is sufficient and the collector can keep his treasure with him as long as he likes.
The same applies to the whereabouts of entire collections. Apparently, the former opponents have come to the same conclusion that every important private collection is sooner or later absorbed by a public collection. Most collectors lack a successor in the family, who continues in their sense what they have started. Thus the responsible collector realizes that even his last shirt has no pockets, and acts in such a way that the collection, his "life's work", stays together and is not torn or even lost. For the museum palaeontologist, the motto in dealing with collectors is therefore openness and friendly cooperation - and patience until the collector has become mature enough to settle the long-term whereabouts of his objects.
This attitude has been advocated and consistently implemented by the Paläontologische Gesellschaft for years.
With these developments, the reputation of fossil collectors among scientists has grown steadily in recent years, and it has become a matter of course that collectors who provide important material are duly acknowledged in the relevant publications, often even as co-authors.
In short, fossil collecting is a hobby for the intellectual explorer, as well as for the fiddly craftsman and the lover of beautiful and rare things. It is just a hobby for the whole person, because it satisfies the hunting fever when a new find is successful, it requires care and manual dexterity in preparation, it serves the sense of order and aesthetics in the creation of the collection, and it can lead to the intellectual playground if as a private palaeontologist you get a little bit involved in science, not to mention human contacts. The importance of communication at eye level and consensual cooperation between palaeontologists and collectors has long been recognized by the Paläontologische Gesellschaft and has always been promoted with lasting effect. After all, collectors and professional palaeontologists pursue the same motive, namely to reserve a little piece of eternity for themselves, some with their collections, others with their writings.
Fossil collecting has even left literary traces, and not only in Eduard Mörike's sensitive poem "Der Petrefaktensammler" (The Petrefact Collector), from which the motto in the title of this essay is derived. Dr. h.c. Otto Linck, forester, man of letters, art historian, conservationist, and even private paleontologist has aptly characterized the collector and collecting. In his witty poem "Praise of the Collectors" he writes
... and pre-worldly animals sleep deep in the stone; the giant kingdom of the ammonite wheels, one can be very happy in it! Oceans rush out of them on long sunken continents, flying lizards move like aeroplanes to the collector through the morning dream...
by Hans Hagdorn
Scientists of the Paläontologische Gesellschaft are available for questions and contacts for hobby palaeontologists.
For questions on specific topics, groups of animals or plants, on special sites or geological periods of time, you can contact the persons listed here directly:
|Subject / Fossil group
Tertiary foliage flora
|Prof. Dr. Johanna Eder Director State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart Rosenstein 1 D-70191 Stuttgart
|Keuperfloren Southern Germany
|Klaus-Peter Kelber Fröbelstr. 31 D-97074 Würzburg
|Paleozoic and Mesozoic floras
|Prof. Dr. Hans Kerp Research Centre for Palaeobotany Geological-Paleontological Institute Westphalian Wilhelm University of Münster Hindenburgplatz 57 D-48143 Münster
|Paleozoic floras and petrified forests
|PD Dr Ronny Rößler Director Museum of Natural History Moritzstraße 20 D-09111 Chemnitz
Devonian and Palynoflorene of the Tertiary & Quaternary
Dr. Georg Heumann Steinmann Institute Bonn Rheinische Friedrichs Wilhelms University Bonn Nußallee 8 D-53115 Bonn
|Cold water coral reefs, climate change, deep sea biotic communities
|Prof. Dr. Andre Freiwald Institute for Paleontology, University of Erlangen Loewenichstr. 28 D-91054 Erlangen
|Ammonites, beadload fossils, Geology & Palaeontology of Northwest Germany
Prof. Dr. Jens Lehmann Geosciences Collection of the University of Bremen University of Bremen - Faculty 5 (Geosciences) Klagenfurter Strasse D-28359 Bremen
|Invertebrates of the Jurassic, ammonites, crabs
|Dr. Günter Schweigert State Museum of Natural History Rosenstein 1 D-70191 Stuttgart
|Echinoderms, octocorals, bed load fossils
|Dr. Mike Reich Geoscience Centre of the University of Göttingen, Museum, Collections & Geopark Goldschmidt-Str. 3, D-37077 Göttingen
|Muschelkalk fossils, echinoderms of the Triassic
|Dr. Hans Hagdorn Muschelkalk Museum Ingelfingen Schlossstr. 11 D-74653 Ingelfingen
Paleozoic Insects & Arachnids
|Prof. Dr. Carsten Brauckmann Institute for Geology and Palaeontology, Technical University Clausthal Leibnitzstr. 10, D-38678 Clausthal-Zellerfeld
|Tertiary fish, Molasse, Mainz Basin
|Prof. Dr. Bettina Reichenbacher Department of Geo- and Environmental Sciences (Palaeontology Section) Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München Richard-Wagner-Str. 10 D-80333 München
|Prof. Dr. Oliver Rauhut Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology Richard-Wagner-Str. 10, D-80333 Munich
|Dr. Oliver Wings Institute for Earth Sciences Sigwartstr. 10 D-72076 Tuebingen
Upper Pleistocene Mammals
|Dr. Alexander Gehler Geoscience Centre of the University of Göttingen Goldschmidt-Str. 3, D-37077 Göttingen
Prof. Wighart von Koenigswald Steinmann Institute Bonn Rheinische Friedrichs Wilhelms University Bonn Nußallee 8 D-53115 Bonn
Regional Geology / Palaeontology
|Southern Teutoburg Forest, Central Weserbergland
|Prof. Dr. Rainer Springhorn Lippisches Landesmuseum Ameide 4 D-32756 Detmold
PD Dr. Michael Gudo Morphisto, Evolution Research and Application GmbH Schumannstrasse 144 D-63069 Offenbach am Main
Collect, identify and exchange fossils and gain scientific knowledge from them: Networks are indispensable for this. The Paläontologische Gesellschaft sees its task in particular in scientific cooperation, in assistance, advice and support in the case of finds that are difficult to recover, in regulations or scientific interpretation. Fossil collectors are already very well organized among themselves through various networks. On this page we present the fossil collector networks with which the Paläontologische Gesellschaft cooperates.
|Very well organized and networked collector community with its own magazine as publication organ ("Steinkern").
|Portal of the Altmühltal Nature Park with many interesting tips for hobby palaeontologists and fossil collectors who want to go hunting for fossils in the Altmühltal.
|Freunde der Geowissenschaftlichen Sammlung der Universität Bremen e.V.
|Support Association of the Geosciences Collection of the University of Bremen.
|Rosenheimer Mineralien- und Fossiliensammler e.V.
|About 130 members of the association whose purpose is to impart and exchange knowledge of mineralogy, geology and palaeontology.
|Arbeitsgruppe Palaeo-Geo e.V.
|Association of hobby palaeontologists and mineral collectors from the Rhine-Main area with currently about 100 members.
Sales portal for fossils, minerals, amber and dinosaur models.
|Mineralien- und Fossilienfreunde Bayer Leverkusen e.V.
Collectors' association with about 90 members from the Cologne area with contacts to universities, museums and government offices. Member of the PalGes.
|Gesellschaft für Geschiebekunde
|Association for the promotion of bedload science.