About 150 million years ago the area of the Altmuhl valley around Solnhofen in Southern Germany consisted of a series of stagnant coastal lagoons. The deep waters were salty and anoxic so the bodies of birds and animals that fell in, and fish that died were often preserved from decay as they lay on the bottom. When seasonal storms brought sediment into the lakes a new layer preserved and fossilised the corpses.
The stone is now quarried for construction and for use in
lithography (hence the name lithographic limestone). Over the last few hundred years the quarries have turned up
huge quantities of fabulously preserved fossils.
The most famous by far are the only eight known specimens of the earliest
known bird Archeopteryx.
The first specimen of what is now classified as Archeopteryx lithographica was discovered near Reidenburg in 1855. But it was misclassified as a pterodactyl until 1970. It is now in Teylers Museum in Harlem.
A feather was found near Solnhofen five years later in 1960. This is now in Berlin.
The third specimen was recognised as a genuinely new
species. Now known as the London
specimen it was found in 1861, near Langenaltheim and
bought to London by Richard Owen. It
featured largely in the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution between Owen
and Huxley. Read more here.
The fourth specimen, the best
preserved and most famous of all, was found in 1877 near Blumenberg and is now
The fifth specimen was found in 1958 near Langenaltheim, in the same quarry as the London Specimen. It consisted only of a torso and remained in the possession of its finder Eduard Opitsch until his death in 1992. It was then found to have gone missing and has not so far reappeared.
The sixth Eichstatt specimen was found near Workerszell in 1951. It is smaller than the others and may be a juvenile, and is currently the star exhibit in the Jura Museum Willibaldsburg.
In 1992 the seventh and so far final specimen of Archeopteryx lithographica was found near Eichstatt. It is now exhibited in the Burgermeister-Muller Museum in Solnhofen.
One final specimen appeared in 1993 but is thought to be a different species, Archeopteryx bavarica. It remains in a private collection.
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