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Oppenheim’s interests in the natural sciences

Many European explorers and scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries considered the collection and preparation of zoological, botanical, and mineralogical specimens an integral aspect of their work of discovery and study. Max von Oppenheim also wanted to make his contribution to this field of academic investigation about the world.

Photo: Pinned zophobas worms (“superworms”) of the Oppenheim Collection, Berlin 2010

Oppenheim’s specimen collection

When Oppenheim returned from his first great expedition of 1883 to the Orient he brought with him mineral and botanical specimens which he considered “of interest as samples of the summer flora of the Syrian desert and Mesopotamia.”He presented the collection of minerals to Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde while the botanical specimens, which had first been identified by the botanist Paul Ascherson, went to the expert for Africa Georg Schweinfurth, Oppenheims’s mentor and fatherly friend.

After his return from Tell Halaf in 1913, Oppenheim could also add more well-documented zoological specimens to the collection of the Museum für Naturkunde. Included in his gift were seven mammals preserved in alcohol; skins of 31 birds; 154 reptiles and amphibians; 211 butterflies and grubs; 1100 beetles; 176 ants, wasps, and bees; 631 arachnids; and 130 other invertebrates. The initial examination of these specimens revealed how very valuable they were. Among them was a previously unknown species of starling which was given a name honoring Oppenheim – Sturnus vulgaris oppenheimi– by the ornithologist Oskar Neumann.

Bedouin with huge fish from the Habur, undated

Oppenheim and his staff rarely took photographs when capturing animals, which makes it very fortunate that one image can be associated with a particular incident briefly described by Oppenheim in an unpublished account. “Once I saw two huge lizards, both the size of a man, jostling with each other in the act of mating. […] They were not disturbed by us in the slightest during their lovemaking. One of them attacked us when we shot at it so we might add it to our scientific collection. The horses were very afraid of it. Ultimately, it quickly locked its jaws on the end of rifle butt pointed in its direction, so that I could photograph [it] while still alive. The other lizard disappeared into its nest, an unfathomably deep hollow in the earth.”

The zoological collection in the Museum für Naturkunde remained largely intact but the Oppenheim herbarium in Berlin’s Botanical Museum was lost during the bombing raid of March 1943.