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Cabinet of Curiosities

As copies of Wolfgang Grulke’s ravishing book Heteromorph go on sale bearing the Society’s endorsement, Ted Nield visits the author in his private museum in Dorset.

Down a narrow cul de sac in the tiny Dorset village of Oborne, behind impressive wrought iron electric gates which part as we approach, can be found one of the most remarkable collections of fossils – and much more besides – ever assembled.  Its presiding genius, Wolfgang Grulke, tells me it used to be an open barn when he and his family moved here from South Africa almost a decade ago.  Outside, a giant fossil nautiloid sits on a stack of pallets.  “I am working on that one now.  It’s Bajocian.  The biggest ever found!” he says, in passing.  “When it’s finished I will have to get a crane in to move it...”

The door opens, lights flicker on, revealing a room so full of beautiful things that one hardly knows what to stare at first.  I have a subliminal flash of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’, as depicted on the frontispiece of Danish savant Ole Worm’s 1655 book, Museum Wormianum.  I see a huge ichthyosaur specimen mounted on one wall; the long wall before me is lined with backlit glass-fronted mahogany cabinets full of coiled cephalopods.  Raptor egg nests sit as though waiting to hatch, or for their parent to return.  Ostrich eggs and others from the extinct flightless giant birds of Madagascar sit in vitrines; massive prepared slabs stand on easels like works of art, which indeed they are – masterpieces of the preparator’s skill. 


There is a bookcase, full of books - old and rare as well as new and not so rare, shelved together in an egalitarian spirit.  One section is a secret door leading to a clean room (with coffee machine) and a prep room beyond.  A narwhal tusk, tribal art, house posts like great totems and a carved canoe prow collected in Papua New Guinea, jostle together for space around the walls.   In the middle of the room stand a desk, a dining table (with cookie jar) and a three-piece Chesterfield suite.  I go to sit in one of the deep-buttoned armchairs, but find it already occupied by a huge ammonite, curled like a sleeping cat.  And before me, the most stunning specimen of all – looking at first like a jumble of archaic wind instruments (a serpent, a rebec, a sackbut) – but which are actually among the largest and spiniest heteromorph ammonites I have ever seen.  The specimen, from the Barremian of Haute provence, forms the cover illustration of Wolfgang’s lavish new book, Heteromorph, published this month.

For a man clearly obsessed with reconstructing the past, there is a certain irony in the fact that Grulke, now Emeritus Director of the consultancy Futureworld, has built his career and reputation consulting to major blue-chip companies like IBM.  His business books bear the sorts of titles familiar from airport bookstalls - like his best-selling 10 Lessons from the Future, or Lessons in Radical Innovation: Out of the box, straight to the bottom line.  Both of these are published by Financial Times/Pearson, have been translated into Spanish, Chinese and Arabic and sell hundreds of copies every month.  It all seems a far cry from the palaeontology of heteromorph ammonites.

I asked how his passion for collecting started.  “When I was a teenager.  I grew up in Germany and never saw the sea; then my parents moved to South Africa and one of the first holidays we took was to the sea.  I was amazed by the rock-pools and so on and so I became a shell collector.  All my life, as I have travelled around the world on business, whether it’s China or Alaska or wherever, I would say ‘OK, finished with business now’, and at first I have gone scuba diving and snorkelling.  Then there came a time when I realised that nearly all the shells that ever existed were extinct, dead!  So I began to start collecting fossils and asking ‘What’s the geology?’ instead.”


Grulke’s book Heteromorph,  which has (unusually) received the imprimatur of the Geological Society, has been peer reviewed and praised by an international team of 15 academic experts.  Yet Grulke admits he came from ‘degree zero’ of geological knowledge.  “When I started I was a typical idiot amateur.  I knew absolutely nothing.  I had studied things like maths and physics, knew nothing about geology, so I annoyed the hell out of all kinds of geologists and palaeontologists, mainly in South Africa, asking all the dumbest questions until I understood.  I went on a lot of digs with them and finding they had no money, started sponsoring them, paying their hotel bills and travel and so on, just so that I could learn from them.” 

He despairs of the indigence that afflicts so much of his beloved subject.  “You can’t be a palaeontologist unless you do something else.  It’s always a conflict.”  Some academics resented his wealth; while still in South Africa, Grulke served as a director of the J L B Smith Instuitute of Ichthology (named for the man who was the first to identify the Coelacanth, at the time thought long extinct).  “I used to go on dives and hand over my images to them” he tells me.  “We identified a whole bunch of new species of fish and so forth; but the terrible thing was the envy that built up ...with  a lot of academics I found a real wall could build up.  I could never understand it really.”

Happily though, petty resentment was not the rule.  “I devote a whole chapter in the book to this guy Herbert Klinger at the South African Museum.  I am sure he hated me at first with all my dumb questions about ammonites, but we’ve become firm friends and been on so many digs in South Africa and it’s been fantastic.  To find people like that, prepared to share their knowledge and skill – it’s really wonderful.  Now, if I find anything in the Cretaceous I pass it by him and he’s replying within the hour with ideas and suggestions.”  He adds sadly: “But there’s still no money in any of this.”

He takes me over to the beautiful mahogany cabinets, handmade by a local cabinetmaker, to display his ammonite specimens, and their ancestors.  “I could never get the whole geological timescale into my head; so to help me I started putting specimens in order in my garage in South Africa.  When we moved here I created this room to show the complete chronology of the origin and evolution of ammonites and their ancestors from 500Ma to the time they died out - all to show how these guys evolved.  I have not seen any museum in the world that shows you that.”

“And so you can see that there were three times - in the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous - when a couple of lineages became uncoiled.  So I started with my ‘Why, why, why...’ and these uncoiled ammonites became my hobbyhorse.  I found that there is rather little written about them.  Also, methods of preparing these specimens have changed so much recently, so their fossils can reveal so much more now than they once did.”

We stand before his prize specimen, prepared by Luc Ebbo, one of the world’s leading fossil preparators working today, to whose work Grulke devotes an entire chapter of his book.  “This locality is unique in the sense that all the spines are preserved, or are present as imprints; because many of these spines were hollow and don’t usually preserve well.  There are in fact two kinds of spine, both solid and hollow.  These are very delicate.  If you go to the great museums in Paris or anywhere, you never see them - but that’s because these old specimens were prepared when they didn’t have the tools or techniques.” 

5000 HOURS

He shows me two contrasting specimens, one prepared in the 1990s, and one with more modern tools and techniques.  The difference is striking.  “But that” he says, pointing to the featureless older specimen, “is what you’ll find in every ‘great’ museum.  Fossil preparation is an evolving skill - but I can’t see many people going into it because commercially it just doesn’t make sense.”

This fact is especially true for invertebrates.  “This,” he says, placing a hand on his prize specimen, “represents perhaps 5000 hours of work.  The day we found it we found this bit” (He indicates the body chamber of the largest specimen.)  “We could see it was part of a heteromorph ammonite because there was just one whorl and no adjacent ones.  But it was the end of the day, our rucksacks were full, we were three kilometres from the car; so we left it.  Luc came back to get the rest later.  What’s really interesting is that there are 17 species of heteromorphs in this one block; they must al have been washed into some sort of lens on the ocean floor; the spines are preserved only on the undersides.  This is why we always prepare them from the bottom first.”

Luc Ebbo will be bringing another specimen to add to Wolfgang’s collection soon, he tells me – “The largest heteromorph ammonite ever found, from Morocco, about as tall as I am.  Quite incredible!”  But the market for these exquisite works is vanishingly small.  “When Luc finished this one he said ‘I am never doing this again!’.  Imagine how much you might pay your gardener for 5000 hours’ work – it’s just not worth it.  He’s one of the best fossil preparators in the world, he has his own gallery; but he’s doing vertebrates now.  That’s what people pay to see.  The last chapter of the book is about this specimen and another that Luc did, which is now on sale in a London gallery.  It’s massive, Moroccan, not as much detail or variety, but 4.5 by 2.5 metres and It’ll probably go to some big hotel somewhere because I don’t think any museum anywhere is going to be able to spend that kind of money!”


“I hope that people enjoy [the book]” he says as I leaf through the mock-up version on the dining table.  Futureworld...  has always been about communicating technology-related stuff to business.  ‘What’s the future going to be like?’  ‘What’s your business going to be like five, ten, fifteen years out?’  It’s always about taking executives, who think they know it all, and saying: what if this or that happens?  And if they say ‘Ah - I hadn’t thought of that’, or ‘I hadn’t thought about it in that way before’ than I am happy.  Now, I am trying to apply the same sort of approach to this field, because it is astonishing how few palaeontologists step back, and look at the big picture, and it’s the big picture that interest me.”

“I have always been surprised by things, always had that sense of wonder about things.  And yet I meet so many people who just shrug their shoulders, whether it’s a narwhal tooth or a piece of tribal art sculpture or whatever.  They lack that naivety, and that’s what I still have, I think.  If you get too sophisticated you are never amazed by anything.”


HETEROMORPH The rarest fossil ammonites: Nature at its most bizarre by Wolfgang GRULKE Published by: At One Communications. First edition (1 Oct 2014) 224 pages ISBN-10: 0992974003 ISBN-13: 978-0992974008.  List Price: £38.00 Available from Amazon, and the Geological Society Bookshop Bookshop.  Collectors' limited edition: Luxury edition in custom-designed slipcase, limited to 100 signed and numbered copies, ISBN 978-0-9929740-1-5. Publication late September 2014. Price £120 GBP (approx. $205 USD; 151 EUR).  See the Hetermorph website (above) for details and ordering.  See also


Advance praise for Heteromorph:

  • Once in several years a book arrives in my library that becomes a companion throughout life. This is an incomparable journey through shapes, spirals and sculptures as never imagined possible - it’s where art and nature meet. The book is beautiful, diverse and surprising. When one arrives at the end, one wants to start again at the beginning. Guido Poppe, world-renowned conchologist, who has built many famous collections, and prolific author
  • Heteromorph ammonites are unique. Although we may never know for sure how they made a living, they will always cause us to think and wonder. It is a pleasure to find a book devoted solely to them. Neil H. Landman, Curator, American Museum of Natural History, New York.
  • Enthralling. A wonder-filled journey of discovery. Patrice Lebrun, Ph.D., editor of 'Fossiles, revue française de paléontologie'
  • I am stunned. What a magnificent book. A great work of art. Peter Ward, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, The University of Washington, Seattle
  • Beautiful, Fascinating, Outstanding! A must for all who love the bizarre, the beautiful and the best! Neal L. Larson, President, Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences; Owner, Larson Paleontology Unlimited
  • This authoritative and surprisingly beautiful book shows that nothing, absolutely nothing in nature, can be compared with the long, successful and extraordinary development of heteromorphy in ammonites.  S. Peter Dance, acclaimed author of A History of Shell Collecting and other works on natural history
  • For centuries heteromorphs have been dismissed as one of nature's aberrations – this book positions them as a source of dreams and inspiration. Luc Ebbo, one of the world's top preparators of heteromorph ammonites, bridging the gap between stone and art
  • Essential book on the most exotic ammonites. Made for fossil lovers.  José Juárez Ruiz, violinist and researcher in Lower Cretaceous ammonites of Mallorca island
  • Beautifully illustrated with some of the most impressive heteromorph ammonites. If you haven't been impressed by ammonites before, you certainly will be after reading this. This book will be hard to beat.  Dr. Christian Klug, Zurich University, Palaeontological Institute and Museum
  • A beautiful book for anyone interested in seeking to understand these wonderful and eccentric fossils.   Robert Baron Chandler, Scientific Associate, The Natural History Museum London; authority on ammonites of the Jurassic Oolite
  • A wonderful window into a bizarre world of shell-shapes for which we have no explanation. Dr. John Whicher, Collector and researcher on Jurassic Oolite gastropods; previously Chairman of the British Shell Collectors' Club
  • Superb! A 'must-have' book for all cephalopod fans and others that appreciate the sheer beauty of heteromorph ammonites. Dr Andy King, Director/Geological consultant, researcher on Ordovician and Mesozoic nautiloids.