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Holzmaden's Jurassic Park: DODDS students dig deep at Jurassic shale pit near Stuttgart, Germany

Holzmaden's Jurassic park: DODDS students dig deep for fossils
Adults and children from Böblingen Elementary Middle School in Stuttgart get in on the fossil hunting at the Urwelt-Museum Hauff. The museum is named for the Hauff family, which has been involved in fossil excavation in the area for three generations.
Photo: Daniel L. L'Esperance

When was the last time you were able to pack up the kids on a sunny morning with a promise that everybody would soon be roaming with life-size dinosaurs and coming home with a bag full of fossils?

When I found out my second-grade class would be among five from Böblingen Elementary Middle School on Panzer Kaserne in Stuttgart, Germany, to go on a fossil dig, I was the one who couldn't sleep the night before.

When I was a kid growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., the first thing I hunted were fossils. They were perfect for a kid like me: small, full of history, rare, and — best of all — free. Behind my house there was an old excavation site that my neighbor pals called "The Pit." It was full of the craziest, most beautiful fossils a kid could dream of. If I was lucky, I'd walk home with treasures to share with my family and friends. Those were the good old days.

Fast forward to 2012 in the area around Holzmaden, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where amateur excavators can find fossils in fields of slate. This is the perfect field trip. The kids in my class were beside themselves with anticipation. Through my own love of all things old (and you can't collect anything older than a 180-million-year-old fossil!), I got my students excited about digging into the earth and pulling out a treasure. I taught them what it takes to create a fossil: life, death, mud, pressure and millions of years to turn those carbon molecules into minerals.

Both the fossil museum, Urweltmuseum Hauff (Hauff Museum of the Prehistoric World) and the fossil pit, Schieferbruch Ralf Kromer, are located minutes off autobahn A8 in the direction of Munich, 18 miles from Stuttgart. Just punch the address of the museum (Aichelberger Straße 90, 73271 Holzmaden) into your trusty GPS and follow your satellite.

The museum, established and owned by three generations of a family named Hauff, is unmistakably exciting. Lock the car doors as you arrive or your kids (young and old) will be bolting for the Dino Park before you can shut the engine off.

Don't fight the kids on this one; head straight out to the park, where you will walk with the (almost) real thing. On the banks of a lake amid primeval scouring rush, ginkgo and sequoia trees, life-size statues of dinosaurs from the Mesozoic period can be found: Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Iguanodon and Deinonychus, Plateosaurus and Allosaurus. One dinosaur is hidden in an excavation field.

The kids were properly grossed out as they saw a very realistic-looking pack of ravenous raptors taking down a helpless herbivore. Life and death can be so dramatic. Nearby, I reluctantly stared up into the vacant eyes of an Allosaurus. I would not have been surprised if she had blinked at me dumbly like that raptor on "Jurassic Park."

The museum building offers an optional movie outlining the series of geological changes that create fossils, whether fauna or flora. Most of the fossils you will uncover at the quarry will be types of shells from the Jurassic Period.

On the bottom floor, you'll find yourself taking a quick walk through time — millions of years in a single stride of fossil exhibits starting at the early prehistoric Caucasus Period through the Iron Age. You'll learn here what many don't know — that mastodons roamed throughout what is now Europe in huge herds.

If you have children with you, take a well-deserved "pit stop" (get it?) before you hop back into your car to begin your 10-minute drive from the museum to the fossil pit. The portable john at the site is at best functional but serves its purpose.

We arrived at the fossil pit with the proper paleontologist equipment, including hats, sunglasses and sunscreen to fight off the German summer sun. After paying a small fee (2.50 euros for adults and 1.50 euros for children), we enjoyed our bag lunches deep in anticipation of the hunt ahead. Serious fossil hunters can pay an additional euro for a hammer and 1.50 euros for a hammer and chisel. Hammering and chiseling aren't absolutely necessary to discover fossils, but they do add to the fun. A hard-working second-grade paleontologist pounding away with his hammer and chisel discovered some of the finest fossils found the day of our trip.

It didn't take long before everyone had as many fossils as he or she could haul. Just when we thought life could not get any better, the ice cream man came driving up. He had the best Italian ice north of Milan! This was the life — I never had ice cream delivered to me as a kid when I was getting dusty in "The Pit."

After I worked my way through a bowl of pistachio, melon and lemon Italian ice, it was time to drag my fossils back to the bus and head back to school with the other teachers and our happy young fossil hunters. The trip home after a long day out is usually a great opportunity for the students to fall asleep. Not this day; everyone was too pumped up as they showed off their finest fossils and retold their hunting stories.

I couldn't wait to show my wife the treasures I had found that day. It appears my inner child is still every bit a fossil hunter.