As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ going for Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos harlani. Last week, we were lucky enough to meet up with Hydrarchos (or part of her) in person, in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.
A bit of introduction is necessary, perhaps. The story of Hydrarchos itself has been told many times, although few have really looked into it in-depth.1 Last week, during the museum’s Knowing Things conference, Lukas Rieppel held a plea for Koch as a sincere and respected collector – as opposed to the sheister he’s usually made out to be. Lukas is going to publish on this subject, and it’ll be interesting to read the case he’s going to make.2
After a tour of the Eastern United States, Great Britain and finally Germany, Koch sold the fossil in 1847 to the natural cabinet of the Prussian King, Frederick William IV (colloquially known as FW4). This was still before FW4 would refuse the German imperial crown during the revolution of 1848, but he was already known for being something of an oddball. The interesting question, of course, is whether Johannes von Müller, FW4’s director of the cabinet, was aware of the purchase in advance – I haven’t seen much evidence either way sofar, but Lukas – who has – seems to think Von Müller was involved. Regardless, after it arrived in Berlin it was immediately re-designated as three distinct genera: Zeuglodon, Basilosaurus, and Zigorhiza.
From that point onwards, its fate becomes a bit unclear; in subsequent reorganisations of the collection, it seems to have been placed at the anatomical cabinet3 initially, and then in the geological-paleontological museum, one of the museums in the Museum für Naturkunde, in 1889.4. A large part of the specimen(s) was (were) destroyed when the Museum was bombed in 1945.
Happily, a helpful soul pointed my attention to an exhibition catalogue from 2000 which mentioned the museum’s Basilosaurus fossils, along with some information on Hydrarchos.5 This information allowed us to get in touch with the museum’s curator for fossil mammals, and last week we received the opportunity to meet up with our hero.6
Not a lot of Koch’s specimens is left;
most of it was lost in the war, and one cupboard-ful and some other scraps remain.7 Koch’s preparation of his display was notoriously shoddy, and most of the fossils received further preparation in the century and a half after their purchase. But we found one mandible fragment that seemed to be in near ‘original’ condition.
It was a great experience to meet up with a specimen that made such an impression in its time, and whose history remains among the classic tales of early paleontology (or to be more exact, crypto-paleontology). But apart from that, looking at these remains left me with a new-found respect (and interest) for these early cetaceans. Many thanks to the Museum für Naturkunde and Oliver Hampe for having been given the opportunity.
Edit: it seems as though there’s a lot more left of Hydrarchos than we previously thought. More about that soon.
A few more photographic impressions below. For greater detail, click the photos (all images published courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Perhaps the best introductory treatment is given by Brian Switek (2010). Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 145-173. ↩
I hope he won’t mind me remaining resolutely on the fence until then. ↩
Today part of the Charité Hospital’s Museum of Medical History. ↩
The museum building itself was opened in 1885, containing the zoological and mineralogical collections; the geological and paleontological collections from the mining school were incorporated into the new geological-paleontological museum four years later. Up to this day, despite being housed in the same building, the three museums remain as separate administrative entities. ↩
“Kabinett der Naturgeschichte”, in: Horst Bredekamp etc. (2000). Theater der Natur und Kunst – Theatrum Naturae et Artis. Berin: Henschel, 141-143. ↩
‘We’ contains Lukas Rieppel, Chris Manias and yours truly ↩
To be precise: several vertebrae, some teeth, fragments of both jaws, part of a humerus, one posterior skull section, and casts of various skull parts ↩