Of cave bears and country artisans

When words are sparse, objects can help in the telling. Such is the case of the family Wunder, a line of wainwrights who lived in the mountain village of Muggendorf. Notched in the limestone highlands of Franconia in southern Germany, Muggendorf became an unlikely nexus of natural inquiry around 1800 (Illmann, 2010). Villagers had long driven cattle to annual markets in Nuremberg some 50 kilometers south, carted brandy to all points within eight hours, and sold beer in the surrounding valleys. But beginning in the 1780s, they saw an influx of wealthy lowlanders, come to purchase natural objects from the local “Kabinetchen,” a small cabinet inside the Wunder home. There is no record of sale, save for scant notes taken by travelers themselves. The Romantic writer Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder made off with some marine fossils and a “heathen urn” (Wackenroder, 1938), while the English geologist William Buckland bagged “a fine Bears head” (Rudwick, 2005). The extinct “cave bear” (Ursus spelaeus), so named by one of the Wunders’ lowland collaborators, was Muggendorf’s most prized commodity. Posted as far as Paris and St. Petersburg, bear skulls drawn from Muggendorf’s many caves served as evidence for competing theories of earth history (Anthony, 2021). 

Photo: dpa, Stuttgarter Zeitung (2019). The cave bear reconstructed in Museum Wiesbaden.

Today, the cave bear is ubiquitous in natural history museums across central Europe. A denizen of the Pleistocene, Ursus spelaeus is sometimes shown as a skeletal carcass, in one case even as a unicorn, according to Leibniz’s interpretation of fossils found in the Harz. More frequently the bear appears as a fearsome fang-bearing predator with a wooly coat. Subdued by modern paleontologists, who generally agree that human predation combined with climate change to extinguish the bear during the Last Glacial Maximum, Ursus spelaeus survives as a cuddly creature in several children’s books and can even be taken for a ride in some folk festivals.

Yet there is a striking asymmetry between the cave bear, with its varied afterlife, and the country artisans who first systematically collected it. Of the Wunders we know almost nothing. Their history must therefore be read in the bones—in the expansive economy of naturalia whose silent center was said to be a “rickety hut.”

The silent center

Natural history cabinets of this period are generally understood as the provenance of great men of rank and learning. Precursors to modern museums, cabinets exhibited the prestige of royal patrons, or the imperious gaze cast by colonial collecting networks. A lesser-known lineage stretches back to a rural artisan home (see also Cooper, 2021), where the commerce of natural objects supplemented a meagre income the Wunders drew from woodwork. Alongside their workshop, the Wunders kept “a small room” strewn with “fossils, teeth, jawbones, and whole heads of unknown beasts,” all gathered from local caves and cliffs where they led visitors (Köppel, 1794; Rieselsberger, 1820). Another account of the Wunder home boasts of “a great many stalagmites, | spar, crystal, sea urchin…

Echinites, ammonites etc.                          Echiniten, Amoniten etc.    

Polar bear skulls, jaws, teeth,                    Eisbären-Köpf, Kinnlad, Zähn,       

And more –ites –ites galore….                  Und dergleichen –iten –iten….

The poem would have us imagine bear skulls behind glass and stuffed owls hung from the ceiling. But more sober accounts are no less remarkable. Records of the collection’s purchase by the Bavarian state in 1819 note the fossils of cave wolves, lions, and hyenas as well as bears (Illmann, 2010). One paleontologist said the Wunders had excavated 150 bear skulls from a single cavern in just three years (Goldfuß, 1810). Other records indicate the family’s fossil yield over three generations. The first generation of Wunder collectors began supplying the natural history cabinet in Bayreuth with fossils in the 1780s (Hirschung, 1789). By 1840, one in every five of Bayreuth’s fossils hailed from the Muggendorf Mountains, totaling nearly 1500 individual specimens. The poem above was not far from the mark. Muggendorf accounted for a quarter of Bayreuth’s marine invertebrates—corals, sponges, anemones and the like lodged in the Jura limestone—and several large mammal skeletons besides. 

Share of Bayreuth’s fossils from the “Muggendorfer Gebirge,” Verzeichniss der in der Kreis-Naturalien-Sammlung zu Bayreuth befindlichen Petrefacten (Leipzig: Voss, 1840).

The Wunders had personal as well as material ties to collections in the university town of Erlangen, a day’s ride to the southwest. Their quiet commerce spread like the branches of a family tree through Erlangen and beyond, from one collection to another. In fact, the director of the university’s collections was the brother of the pastor, Johann Friedrich Esper, who first published on Muggendorf’s “polar bear” in 1774. Esper inspired a new generation of Erlangen students to visit Muggendorf, among them the anatomist Johann Christian Rosenmüller, who gave the bear its Latin binomial in 1794.

Ursus spelaeus in Johann Christian Rosenmüller, Abbildungen und Beschreibungen der Fossilen Knochen des Höhlenbären (Weimar: Landes-Industrie-Comptoir, 1804).

In the 1810s, the Erlangen cabinet purchased the private collections of several university professors who benefited from a long collaboration with the Wunders. The Wunders took from this exchange lessons in the nomenclature of Linnaean classification. And in 1813, the paleontologist August Goldfuß, who recently authored a major work on the Pleistocene mammals of Muggendorf, turned the university’s cabinet into Erlangen’s first Natural History Museum—an operation he soon repeated in Bonn. When the second generation Wunder collector died in 1819, his wife (unnamed in the sources) stepped into the breach, guiding visitors to local curiosities. Meanwhile, their son, Daniel, went down to Erlangen to study natural history at the university, whose instructors, one chronicler wrote, had his family “to thank” for “naturalia once thought to be found only in distant lands” (Hirschung, 1789). To think that a wainwright’s son would have found in Erlangen’s cabinets a semblance of his own home!

Bones, beer & broken axles

To contemporaries, bear bones and marine fossils told a story about the natural history of the earth (Rudwick, 2005). Esper speculated that his “polar bear” had been swept into Germany from colder climes during the Noachian Deluge. Rosenmüller harnessed early evolutionary thinking to argue that the “cave bear” was, as its new name suggested, a denizen of the caverns where it was found, an indigenous species that had either been hunted into extinction by early human inhabitants or forced into new a climate where it “degenerated” into an extant species of bear. Goldfuß blended the two, believing the highlands of Franconia once rose like islands in a primordial sea, and that a catastrophic flood drowned the large mammals who dwelt in their caverns.

Today, these fossils might tell another story. The stuff of geo-historical imagination helps to reconstruct an historical ecology of collections. This is a history alive to the ways in which local environmental and economic forces shaped the conditions of possibility for geo-theory. And it gives equal footing to those who excavated fossils and those who named them. 

Consider the roads that linked upland and lowland communities, and which were the Wunders’ traditional source of income. The same karst landscape of soluble bedrock that accounted for Muggendorf’s many caverns, and whose fossil-rich limestone drew naturalists to the area, also made for notoriously sandy, washed out roads. Spring floods turned several stretches of road into a “seafloor” (Köppel, 1794; Buckland, 1823). So wrote one traveler in 1794, evoking the diluvial theory of the region’s formation, as he sent his coachman to fetch a wainwright to repair their broken axle. But bad roads were good for business (Schremmer, 1970); and it was for this reason, as Rosenmüller remarked, that locals were not hasty in repairing the roads. Hence the artisan song (Pillwein, 1824):

If you wish to travel over land,                   Wollt ihr reisen über Land,

Best have a wainwright on hand.              Muß der Wagner seyn zur Hand.

Broken axles and rutty roads not only brought travelers into contact with the wainwright of Muggendorf; being waylaid became a regular motif in Franconian travelogues—a happy circumstance for villagers who welcomed traffic.

The sandy “seafloor” streets of the Wiesent Valley, en route to Muggendorf. 
From Joseph Heller, Muggendorf und seine Umgebung (Bamberg, 1829).

Muggendorf’s great quantity of caverns was matched only by its twelve taverns, a noteworthy number in a village of just 53 houses. Before the Wunders’ far-flung fossil trade landed an ammonite on the valley’s crest, Muggendorf was better known as a village where all citizens were permitted to brew beer, and where hops lined the valley floor. Indeed, Muggendorf’s many taverns were not a result of an influx of travelers; they provided the infrastructure for it. Innkeepers and wagon-makers were an important alliance in upland natural history. The Wunders collaborated with several tavern owners in developing new caverns, employing also local stonemasons and woodworkers to hew passages and erect intricate stairways and platforms, as in a mine (Rosenmüller, 1804). It truly took a village to create a center of scientific activity in the highlands of Franconia. 

Tracing the bones of the cave bear back to their source, from modern museums to an obscure mountain village, we encounter a rather new image of natural history collecting as a rural family business. Natural history appears here as artisanry, a craft passed down through generations, practiced amidst breweries, broken axles, and other aspects of upland life. Ultimately, the asymmetry in historical memory, where cave bears abound and their country collectors seem an extinct species, reflects the inequities of the Franconian fossil exchange. Muggendorf’s fossils made the careers of several eminent men of science; for the Wunders, they hardly made a living. 

Patrick Anthony


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