The Undergraduate Honors field trip to Southern Germany

By Sinjini Sinha, PhD 2024

Sinjini Sinha reflects on her experience co-leading the week-long undergraduate honors research program (UHRP) field trip to Southern Germany.

Field trips are always an exciting way to explore geological outcrops, and it is even more fun when you get to co-lead one. In Spring 2023, I had the wonderful opportunity to co-lead the Undergraduate Honors Research Program (UHRP) annual field trip, where we spent a week in Southern Germany. We were a team of 18 geo-scientists, comprising of four professors, two Ph.D. students, and 12 undergraduate students. We investigated the Upper and Lower Jurassic Lagerstätten deposits and the Steinheim and Ries impact crater sites.

The Lagerstätten deposits contain exceptionally preserved fossils, including articulated skeletons and both hard-tissue and soft-tissue organisms. On day one, we visited the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, which curates the Upper Jurassic Lagerstätten fossils. That afternoon, we explored the Solnhofen quarry which hosts the famous Archaeopteryx specimen (a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds). We collected several exceptionally preserved ammonites, bivalves, and coprolites in the Upper Jurassic Plattenkalks which we were allowed to bring home. Fossils recovered from the quarry required thorough inspection by the quarry authorities; any with scientific value must be donated to the museum for research purposes.

The exceptionally well-preserved Eichstatt Specimen of Archaeopteryx in the Jura Museum


“Looking at the fossils, I felt like I was able to time-travel back to a time where protobirds, ichthyosaurs, ammonites and belemnites roamed the earth. Their fossils told a story hundreds of millions of years long, all at a single glance.”
Amber Nguyen, in her reflection on the trip




Day two’s activities took us to the Eichstatt Collections in the Jura Museum, which is within the Willibaldsburg castle! Along with curating amazing Lagerstätten fossils and the 7th Archaeopteryx specimen, the museum hosts an artificial reef and is home to a 41-year-old garfish (apparently the oldest member of the museum). For the afternoon, we visited Museum Bergér as well as the Fossiliensteinbruch für Hobbysammler quarry for some more Upper Jurassic fossil hunting. After the quarry, we drove to Ries Crater and saw the Polsingen impact melt rock, followed by a drive to the town of Nördlingen, with an evening visit to the church built with suevite impact rocks.

The class dedicated to geology: inspecting the only outcrop of Ries’ intact impact melt rock at Polsingen, in the snow!

Day three to five focused on Southern Germany’s two (unrelated) impact craters. We first visited the Ries Crater Museum that showcases spectacular impact crater rocks, lake cores, and has plenty of information about meteorites, including spectacular samples from all over the world! Emily Bamber, a fellow Ph.D. co-leader on the trip, talked about her own research on impact craters on Earth and Mars, and presented on the mystery around Ries’ first crater lake and the use of lake cores in investigating those science questions. The rim of the Ries crater was best seen from the top of the 70m-tall church tower, which also gave us the gift of some spectacular views of the Nördlingen town, and the opportunity to meet with the tower cat. For days four and five, we visited several sites within the Ries and the Steinheim craters, including the Meyers Keller crystalline ring, and outcrop sites with preserved colourful breccias, megablocks, faulted rocks, and stromatolite. We also visited the Ofnet caves and Roman Ruins, which are archaeological and geoheritage sites.

A grey rock which is cone shaped, on a white plinth. "lineaments" run along the sides of the cone, which is what indicates this is a shatter cone.
Shatter cone sample in Ries Crater museum



“Learning about impact craters and physically laying hands on so many elements of their formation and aftermath was absolutely surreal. Seeing the rings of the impact and understanding how they could have formed was different than anything I have ever learned in classes.” 
Madeline Lloyd, in her reflection on the trip





On day five, we explored the Steinheim crater rim and looked for shatter cones at the edges of the farmers’ fields, as they are often turned up by tilling the soil. It was fascinating for me to learn that shatter cones are rocks that are exclusively formed under meteorite impacts. For the second half of the day, we visited the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart. The museum is famous for preserving the Lower Jurassic Posidonia Shale Lagerstätte fossils, which is related to my Ph.D. research on the Posidonia Shale Lagerstätte. It was great to visit the quarries and share my research on exceptional fossilization to the undergraduate students. On day six, we visited the Holcim Factory and Museum in the morning and the Hauff Museum and the Kromer Quarry in the afternoon, both containing the Posidonia Shale fossils. In the Kromer Quarry one of the students, through some luck and a lot of hard work quarrying, uncovered an almost-full fish fossil specimen: an awesome addition to their fossil collection!

A view from a high point across a small German village and surrounding green farmer's fields. The sky is overcast (grey and cloudy).
A view from the rim of the Steinheim impact crater
A group of 18 professors and students stands in front of a fossil specimen mounted on the wall. the fossil is of a colony of crinoids ("sea lillies") that were living on a piece of driftwood. Overall, the wall-mount is many meters long and about 5 meters high.
The team in front of the spectacular crinoid specimen in Hauff Museum. Photo credits Prof. Richard Ketcham

It was rewarding to see how super enthusiastic the Undergraduate students were about finding fossils, shatter cones, and suevite samples; ready with their hammers and chisels as soon as we arrived at the sites. Each student gave a presentation on a topic of their choice, such as Steinheim snails or Geopark history, as we were visiting the corresponding sites. On the final day, we had to buy extra bags to bring back all the fossils and rocks that everyone collected! Some students brought back large slabs full of fossils with a plan of making a tabletop or a wall hanging. We wrapped up the trip with a visit to Neuschwanstein castle. Built in the 1800s, the castle is apparently the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella castle!

A view of Neuschwanstein castle from afar. It's a white, German-style castle that's approximately 7 stories high, with grey roof tiles and tall, thin spires. The castle is perched upon a hill.
Squeezing in a drop of culture on the final day with a trip to Neuschwanstein castle

During the trip, Dr. Rowan Martindale enlightened us about exceptionally preserved fossils and Dr. Sean Gulick taught us all about impact craters – the concepts, the physics, as well as showing us rock types in the field. I thank Drs. Jaime Barnes, Richard Ketcham, Rowan Martindale, and Sean Gulick for sharing their wealth of knowledge and mentoring during the trip. The professors ensured that safety is a priority, and we were reminded to put on our boots, carry our rain jackets, and put on safety glasses when splitting rocks. We are all very grateful to all the researchers, museum curators, and hospitality establishments which kept our minds and bodies well-fed with information and delicious foods during the trip, and provided us with places to rest our tired muddy boots!

In addition to visiting my research site, learning about the impact crater rock types took me back to my undergraduate days, where I learnt about all the different impact rock types and their composition and formation. This field trip gave me an opportunity to see those rocks in the outcrop. Although we did not collect samples for research analyses, it was such a rewarding firsthand experience learning how to organize and conduct an international field trip from four great professors of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“The trip to Germany that we were fortunate enough to take this semester was a beautiful reminder of the community I have found and will continue to cherish after I graduate.”
Michael Snook, in his reflection on the trip

Students admiring a wall of Ichthyosaur fossils from the Lower Jurassic Posidonia Shale Lagerstätte at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart