Of Caves and Bear Skeletons in the Swabian Alb
At school we were looking forward to our first major field trip. We were going to see one of the great natural wonders, the Bährenhöhle (Bears Cave), a complex cave system located in the Swabian Alb north of the River Danube. Fräulein Welte explained to the eagerly listening class how it had been discovered quite by chance in 1834.
“A local schoolteacher by the name of Fauth was gathering herbs and was digging for roots when he was startled to see some stones roll into a gap between two large boulders. To his surprise he heard them land at an incredible depth and to verify this he threw several more stones down. As he bent forward his tobacco box fell from his pocket into a small crevice at the edge of the drop. Gently, he removed a small stone but in doing so he dislodged the box so that it fell into the cave. Peering into the depths his surprise turned into horror when he saw a human skeleton!” Now Fräulein Welte had our full attention.
She continued, “The following day he returned to the hole with several friends and the necessary ropes. He was soon lowered into the cave and his friends quickly joined him. In the glimmering light of their candles the more they saw, the greater was their amazement. The floor of the chamber was covered with human and animal skeletons. However, their passage was blocked by a great number of stalagmite formations. When they left the cave, they each took with them bones and stalagmites as proof of their discovery.
After the first exploration the news of their discovery spread. People from the surrounding villages came to visit the cave and nearly all the bones and formations were either destroyed or carried away. A report was made to the Royal Administration and the cave was placed under their supervision. In order to provide better access to the cave, a hole was dug at the western end. This proved quite practical as the cave at this point consisted of clay and boulders of Jurassic limestone, indicating that there had been an entrance here at earlier times, although it was probably blocked with glacial debris after the last ice age. The short excavated passage still leads to the First Chamber. Beneath “Fauthsloch”, the opening named after the teacher, there used to be a large mound of debris about 5 m high containing 50 skeletons of the Plague, together with the bones of horse, cow, pig, sheep, dog, polecat and hare. Evidence in the form of flints has also been found in this chamber proving that early man used this cave at the time of the Reindeer Hunters.”
I put this account into my teacher’s mouth. I gleaned the details of the cave’s discovery from the Internet. However, I remember the buzz and excitement of our class when Fräulein Welte gave us the introduction to one of the most remarkable caves in the world. How eager we were to learn about basic geology, the formation of these awe-inspiring caves, the origin of the bones, the story of early man, the difference between stalagmites and stalactites!
I recalled many of the details of our field trip so well that later on as teacher of the Fauquier Elementary School I often shared my impressions with my students when I took Europe as an option in our Social Studies program. There were seven chambers in all that we walked through during our field trip. The first thing we noticed was the large boulder that at one point must have fallen from the ceiling. A stalagmite growing on it indicated that this happened a long time ago. Scientists had discovered nearby an ancient fireplace. Here a large amount of wood-charcoal was found together with the bones of deer and pig, further evidence that early man lived in this cave. The Fifth Chamber, where the highlight was the large stalagmite called “The Peak”, which had a slender stalactite above it, attracted a lot of attention. The Sixth Chamber was the most beautiful in the old cave, being 15 m high and 20 m wide. This chamber is also called “The Old Cave Bear Cavern” for it was here that most of the Bear remains, skulls, bones, etc. were found. I remember this particular field trip as one that had kindled in me a lifelong interest in geology and anthropology.