Nördlingen: The German Town Built on a Crater
As you stroll the quaint streets of the historic town of Nördlingen, you would never guess that it was built atop a crater that was created about 14.5 million years ago. Actual estimations are 14.808 ± 0.038 million years ago while the Earth was in the Miocene period.
To put this into perspective, the Neocene Period was about 20 million years ago. It was a time when mammals and birds began to evolve into modern forms and early forms of hominids began to emerge on the African continent. No humans lived in the area of the meteor impact zone until several million years later. It would be another several million years, in the sixth century, before the Germanic word “God” is derived from the Proto-Germanic word ǥuđan.
The asteroid that created the crater was about 1.5 kilometer (4,900 ft) in diameter and was accompanied on its travel to Earth by a smaller satellite that was about 150 meters (490 ft) in diameter. They both struck the Earth at an angle of 30 to 50 degrees from a west-southwest to east-northeast direction and made contact with an impact velocity that is estimated to have been 20 km/s (45,000 mph). The catastrophic impact probably had the equivalent force of almost 2 million Hiroshima atom bombs.
The larger of the two celestial bodies that hit created what would be called the Ries Crater, where the present-day town of Nördlingen is situated. The second, smaller asteroid hit about 42 km (25 miles) west-southwest of the center of the Ries Crater. It is estimated that when the meteor made an impact the force of the pressure reached several million bar and had a temperature of more than 20,000 ˚C (36,032 ˚F). (One “Bar” refers to 1 atmosphere of pressure which is equivalent to 14.5 psi.) The meteor and the surface that it made the impact with were either vaporized or simply melted. The deeper lying rock was transformed into other high-pressure minerals like coesite, stishovite and even diamond.
The Ries impact crater is known as a rampart crater which makes it a very unusual discovery on our Earth since these are almost always exclusively found on the planet Mars. Rampart craters exhibit a liquidized ejection flow after a meteor makes the impact. This can be better understood if you consider how it looks when you throw a rock into mud and observe the flow and dispersion of the mud.
Above, a recent tourist map showing some of the buildings that were built with “diamond” stones.
The high force and high-temperature impact of the meteorite created an estimated 72,000 metric tonnes (71,000 British long tons; 79,000 US short tons) of diamonds when it smashed into a local graphite deposit. In the town of Nördlingen, many of the buildings are made with the stone that was quarried from within the Ries Crater. The stones that were used contain thousands of diamonds, all less than 0.2 millimeters (0.0079 in) across so don’t get any ideas that you will find a ten-caret diamond staring at you as you walk the lovely avenues of this town.
Now you would think that the impression made by a celestial body that crashed to Earth 14.5 million years ago while traveling at 45,000 mph and hot enough to leave a depression of over 500 feet deep and 15 miles in diameter would have been eventually spotted after man began to walk upright and wonder into this realm. It wasn’t until man’s further evolution many, many moons later that he began to assume that the large earthly depression originated by means of some sort of volcanic action. In 1906 the people from the area believed that their beloved city was built on an extinct inferno cauldron. And at that time, no one gave any thought that real diamonds made up the majority of the stones that were quarried nearby.
Even until 1960 people held on to the notion that Nördlingen was sitting atop an extinct volcano. It was during this time that two American geologists, Eugene Shoemaker, and Edward Chao paid a visit to Nördlingen. It eventually took the two about ten years, but both reached the conclusion that the mineral coesite, which in unmetamorphosed rock, is only formed naturally by the high-pressure impact that is associated with a meteor collision. They also estimated that approximately 79,000 US tons of microscopic diamonds littered the asteroids debris field. They further concluded that these diamonds were created by the impact of the meteor.
What Nördlingen looked like through the ages:
Nördlingen 240 million years ago
Nördlingen 170 million years ago
Nördlingen 105 million years ago
Nördlingen 66 million years ago
Nördlingen 20 million years ago
Nördlingen in 2019
So, let’s step back a little, well actually a lot, back to that fateful day when an extraterrestrial, intergalactic body the size of a massive city that is equal in width to over 1,600 football fields, slammed into a hapless Earth. At first, we would see a faint red glowing object that otherwise was not there before. The red glow would grow in size and intensity, lighting up the sky as it grew closer to Earth’s atmosphere. It would be blindingly bright by day and even more bedazzlingly brighter at night as it streaked toward an inevitable collision with the third planet from the Sun. If the day was cloudy and overcast, the aurora cast by the fast-approaching orb would blaze so brightly that anyone looking at it would be instantly struck blind.
As the speeding sphere of mass nears the Earth the sound is deafening, and the sky is darkened. There is nowhere to run, there is no escape with the impact zone and hundreds of miles around. The impact is swift and sudden with an intensity that can only be calculated, never experienced. The light, the heat, the noise, the trembling vibration, the shockwave and vacuum created when two massive bodies, both unmovable and unstoppable, collide is unfathomable.
At first, the hurling orb slams into the pristine Miocene landscape, killing any living organism that lives in the area. It is swift for those at the center of the impact. As the unforgiving astronomic body slams deeper into the suevite and assorted bedrock material, the force of the impact drives out the weaker, more inadequate material. A continuous blanket of ejected material flies into the atmosphere and as far away as 50 km. A massive glowing atom bomb-like cloud shoots high into the stratosphere blocking the sun.
Luckily humans were not around to experience this cataclysmic event. Humans would not appear until some 12 million years later when they developed and evolved in Eastern Africa in the area of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It would probably be another 1 million years before humans began their migration to the European continent.
The deep unstable newly formed center of the crater lasts for only a few seconds. The base rises violently upward. Massive chunks of scorched rock cascade down the steep slopes of the craters bowl widening the outer rim. At the same time gravity forces the center of the crater downward forming an elevated circular platform. Fires rage out of control but in a matter of a few moments, the movement of the rocks cease from the center of the crater. As the massive glowing cloud dissipates, an infinite number of exploded fragments of fallout, molten debris rain down on the Earth. The impact of the meteor extinguishes all life within a radius of almost one hundred miles and will have a long-term effect on the landscape for millions of years.
After the fallout had subsided there remained a massive bowl-shaped crater that cities like New York, Paris, London, and San Francisco could fit into. The basin was a very deep depression that had no outlet and eventually, it began to fill with water from rainfall. As the lake began to gradually fill along with nutrient-rich minerals and salts, deposits of bituminous shales and clays formed. Over time the Ries Crater becomes a great Salt Lake where on the shoreline and in the shallow shores of the inside of the crater wall, dolomitic green-algae reefs, calcareous spring deposits, and fossil-rich calcareous sands formed.
Above, what we think happened when the gigantic meteor slammed into the Earth and created the Ries Crater
Eventually, a sparse population of just a handful of species began to take up residency in the salt lake. Small saltwater snails, brine shrimp, minute crustaceans and insect larvae become the dominant life forms in and about the lake. Over scores of millenniums, the waters of the lake would rise and fall many times, even drying out on several occasions. Two million years after the asteroid collided with this part of Europe, the great salt lake dried for the final time. By then, the Ries Crater Lake had become a hospitable body of water enriched by nutrients and inhabited by numerous small mammals and birds including flamingoes, storks, and even parrots.
In the tiny sliver of human existence on this planet, humans began a migration that would eventually take them to the Nördlingen region. To put this in perspective, it would be about 290,000 human lifetimes after the meteor hit before man would settle in what is the Reis Crater.
The name “Ries” is derived from Raetia, for the Raetians tribe that lived in the area prior to the influx of the Roman. The Raeti people were a confederation of Alpine tribes, whose language and culture may have derived, at least in part, from the Etruscans. From not later than about 500 BC, they inhabited parts of what is now present-day Switzerland, the Tyrol region of Austria, the Alpine regions of north-eastern Italy and Germany, south of the Danube River.
The historical development of the name Raeti is uncertain. The Roman province of Raetia was named after this tribe of people who many scholars believe to have originated from Etruscan people who were displaced from the Po Valley of Northern Italy by the Gauls. The Raeti are then thought to have taken up refuge in the valleys of the Alps and perhaps taken up with the indigenous Alpine tribes.
Prehistory and Celtic period:
There is evidence that Nördlingen was already occupied some 500,000 years ago in the late Paleolithic period, the so-called stone age. Artifacts found near and around the Ofnet Caves near the city in 1908 by the archaeologist R.R. Schmidt are believed to be from the Paleolithic time frame. The cave system is located on the nearby limestone hills. Along with stone tools Schmidt discovered two dish-shaped burial pits that held 33 prehistoric human skulls dating to the Mesolithic period. He mentioned that when he found the skulls they were lying “like eggs in flat baskets.” The larger of the two pits held 27 skulls and in the smaller pit there were 6 skulls, each covered in a thick layer of red ochre, and they were arranged concentrically with their faces turned towards the setting sun.
During the Middle Ages, in about the 6th and 7th centuries AD, the region of Nördlingen was occupied by the Alemannic people, a confederation of Germanic tribes on the Upper Rhine River. Eventually, the people of the region were Christianized while under the rule of the Merovingian dynasty. The city of Nördlingen grew steadily and the name “Nordilinga” is first found in documents of the Carolingian royal court dating from 898 AD and recognizes this date as the founding of the city. Rules over by the Bishops of Regensburg, Nördlingen grew into a very important market town.
Located near the center of the Reis Crater Nördlingen continued to grow and prosper. With the city’s strategic location at the crossroads of several major trading routes, including the so-called “Romantic Road,” from Frankfurt, Würzburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Ulm. Nördlingen became an important trading center for grain, livestock, textiles, furs, and metal products. In the year 1215, Nördlingen was granted city rights by Emperor Frederick II and became an imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. Many buildings, made of the nearby quarried diamond-filled stones, rose up from what were ashes of the asteroid that crashed there several million years earlier. In the same year that Nördlingen became an imperial city, construction began on the wall that would eventually surround the entire city.
Despite many buildings being built of the surrounding quarried stone, in 1238 much of the city of Nördlingen was destroyed in a fire. Resilient, the city quickly recovered and eventually, a huge number of craftsmen migrated there and settled outside the city walls. Masons, blacksmiths, brewers, tanners, bakers, and woodcarvers were among this group as well as laborers and apprentices. In the year 1327, the wall which still can be seen today was built, increasing the size of the walled portion of the city by four-times. One hundred years later construction began on St. George’s Church.
The “Master of Nördlingen” was a German woodcarver active in Nördlingen in the 1460s. His name comes from a group of elaborate wooden sculptures that were carved for the high altar of St. Georges church. These figurines are made of walnut and depict stages of the Crucifixion, with figures of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Apostle, two grieving angels, St. George, and Mary Magdalene; all retain their original paint schemes.
In the year 1472, a lawsuit was filed against an owner of a brothel, Linhardt Freiermuth and his wife Barbara Taschenfeind. The eventual trial focused on the charge that the two had forced one of the brothel’s prostitutes, Els von Eystett to have an abortion. The tribunal convicted the owners, banishing Freiermuth from the city and branding his wife on the forehead which afterward she was publicly pilloried.
Between the years 1589 and 1598, superstition and misunderstandings lead to “witch trials” during this early modern period in Nördlingen. During that time, 34 women and one man were burned to death at the stake for the crime of practicing witchcraft, one of which included being a midwife. Despite the eloquent pleas of clergymen, the city continued their heretical persecution of anyone suspected of being a witch.
My Coble/Kobel family in Nördlingen, Germany:
My first trip to Nördlingen was purely by coincidence on a routine trip to visit my family who lives not far from there. My cousin thought that I would enjoy seeing this magnificent walled city, one of only three in Germany. I did enjoy it very much and when I returned to the USA, I noticed on my family tree (I have studied genealogy for several decades) that my 16x great grandfather, Bartholomaus Kobel, had arrived in Nördlingen sometime before 1436, nearly 60 years before Columbus came to America! I was further amazed to learn that a good many generations of my direct Kobel ancestors had lived in this town.
Johann Kobel, my 15x great grandfather, was the first of my family born in Nördlingen on April 25, 1436, as was his wife Margaretha. Both lived their entire lives in Nördlingen. Many future generations of Kobel’s would continue to live in Nördlingen and It would many generations later when Johann George Kobel Sr. (my 8x great grandfather) who would leave Nördlingen beginning a westward migration, settling first in Hoffenheim, Sinsheim, Baden, Germany before the Kobel clan would eventually head for the Americas.
Johann Jacob Kobel left Germany and arrived at St. Catherine’s in England on June 11, 1709. The immigrants were detained on board the vessels until Easter of 1710 awaiting convoys to protect them against the French men of war. They landed in Nutten Island, New York about June 10, 1710. In 1711 and 1712 he lived at the Manor of Livingston on the Hudson River. Some 50 families had moved to Schoharie County, New York prior to October 1712 and spent the winter in dugout shelters. In March of 1713, those who remained behind in Albany moved to Schoharie County. They made their way through 3 feet of snow and were nearly starved to death. That spring friendly Indians gave them potatoes, seeds, and herbs. There were about seven hundred inhabitants in all, and they settled in seven villages named after their delegates who had negotiated with the Indians. Jacob Kobel established a mill on a creek, and it was named Cobelskill, the site of present-day Cobleskill, New York. After they had cultivated their lands for a period of about 10 years, the governor, Robert Hunter of New York, informed them that they had taken their land without permission. The governor then sold their much-improved land to seven wealthy merchants of Albany and Schenectady.
Nowadays, Nördlingen is one of only three towns in Germany that still has a complete wall around the entire city, Rothenburg and Dinkelsbühl are the other two. The steeple of St. George’s church, called the “Daniel” offers a splendid view of not only the walls that surround the city but also the Reis Crater that circles the outskirts of the city. Look for tiny diamonds as you climb upwards to the tower in the suevite impact breccia stones from the impact meteor that was used to build the church.
A visit to the Rieskrater-Museum is well worth the modest price of admission. Here you will find well-organized exhibits of the crater’s history and the geology of the region. The Ries crater museum is located in a well-preserved medieval tanner’s quarter.
Nördlingen, the site of two major battles during the Thirty Years’ War, which took place between 1618–1648. celebrated its 1,100th anniversary in 1998. If you go there, it is easy to reach by car. We flew in from the USA to Munich, then we stayed in Augsburg, then taking an easy drive along the Romantische Straße (Romanic Road) to Nördlingen and spending the day there before returning back to Augsburg, our base in Bavaria.
We have already mentioned that a must-see attraction of Nördlingen is St. George’s Church’s and climbing the 90-meter-high steeple, called “Daniel.” However, just wondering the streets is an absolute joy and of course walking along the wooden ramparts of the spherical wall that surrounds the city is not to be missed. The town hall which was built in the 13th century is also a worthwhile visit as is St. Salvator Church and the Spital, a former hospital during medieval times.
Aside from the Rieskrater-Museum which focuses on the Ries Crater, the town also has several other museums worth a visit. The Bayerische Eisenbahnmuseum (Bavarian Railway Museum) is housed in the old locomotive sheds at the Nördlingen train station. It houses more than 100 original railway vehicles and the shed, itself, has a long history dating back as early as 1849, with the construction of the Ludwig South-North Railway.
Other museums in town are the Nördlingen city museum (Stadtmuseum), the city wall museum (Stadtmauermuseum) and the Augenblick museum, which in German literally means “eye glance” and has many interesting attractions for your eyes and ears. Displays of the camera obscura which was historically important in the development of photography. There you will also find magic lanterns, silent films, barrel organs, pianolas, music boxes, and gramophones.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to step into a crater that was created by a massive asteroid? Perhaps you think about adding a visit to Nördlingen to your bucket list. It would give you an out-of-this-world drop in the bucket!
All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.
The author would like to give thanks to Geopark Ries for their help in putting this together. For more information, please visit www.geopark-ries.de