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Episcopalian Baroque residence at Lake Constance

Meersburg New Palace

Fischfossil aus den Mergelkalkschiefern in Öhningen, Foto: Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Arnim Weischer
Helping the supply along

Fake fossils

Fossil collection was a popular hobby in the 18th century. Everyone who was anyone, and who had the money for it, established their own natural history cabinet. This ever-growing demand led to a supply shortage. And a few had a clever idea.

Drawing of a fossilized leaf by Gatschet, part of the prince-bishops’ collection. Image: Baden State Library Karlsruhe

Fossils were popular collectibles.

Demand determines supply

The magnificent and valuable fossils were in high demand! The huge interest in the prestigious specimens had repercussions for quarries and quarry workers: Soon, the demand for completely preserved and collection-worthy specimens could no longer be met.

Fake fossil from the limestone marl slate in Öhningen. Image: Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Arnim Weischer

Tricky: fake fossils.

Imaginative fakes

The obvious course of action became to repurpose the worthless fragments, especially those of vertebrate fossils, into lucrative items, supplementing incomplete specimens with fragments from other specimens. The soft limestone could be easily manipulated and soon, skilled counterfeiters had developed a technique: They combined various remnants from their “replacement part stock”, or slag heap, to create complete creatures and then combined these pieces in the hollow of a new base.

Fraud uncovered

However, this technique sometimes resulted in the creation of entirely new creatures, a combination of several species, something scientists soon noticed. The true nature of fake fossils was debunked as early as 1832, with the “Studies of fossils of freshwater fish from Tertiary formations” by famous ichthyologist, Louis Agassiz.

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