4,5 km southwest Nörlingen.
A7 exit Heidenheim, towards Nördlingen through Neresheim, Nattheim. At the quarry/Roman villa 5 km before Nördlingen turn left. Park at Roman villa, 15 minutes walk.
|Classification:||Karst cave Collapsed Cave|
Big Ofnet: A=520 m asl, L=30 m, portal: W=6 m, H=4 m.
Small Ofnet: A=525 m asl, L=15 m, portal: W=4 m, H=2.70 m.
|Guided tours:||self guided|
E. Frickhinger (1939):
Das Himmelreich mit den Ofnethöhlen,
|Address:||Verkehrsamt der Stadt Nördlingen, Marktplatz 2, 86720 Nördlingen im Ries, Tel: +49-9081-4380 und 84116, Fax: +49-9081-84113|
|As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.
|1875-1876||first systematically studied by geologist Oscar Fraas.|
|1901-1908||archaeological excavations by the Tübingen researcher Robert Rudolf Schmidt, discovered Stone Age skull burials.|
|1934 und 1936||Excavations by Ernst Frickhinger and Ferdinand Birkner.|
The Ofnethöhlen (Ofnet Caves) are located near Nördlingen in the outer side of the rim of the Nördlinger Ries meteor crater. It seems necessary to first explain a bit about this extraordinary geologic site first, as it influenced the caves very much. The Nördlinger Ries is one of the biggest meteor craters of the world with a diameter between 24 and 25 km. It was formed by the impact of a stone meteorite about 14.7 Ma ago in the Upper Miocene. In the following times, with a very warm, subtropical climate, the crater was filled with a lake and during millions of years it was completely filled with sweet water lake sediments. Later the upper layers were eroded by the melting water of the Ice Age glaciers, and so the crater is again visible as a depression today. The sediments inside the crater are much younger than around and full of fossils. Nördlingen is located inside the crater, on a fertile circular plain. More information about the meteor crater can be found at the Rieskrater Museum in Nördlingen.
The Ofnethöhlen are located in the ring wall of the Meteor Crater. They are cave ruins that have been cut open by a dry valley on the side facing away from the Ries. The two caves are called Große Ofnet (Big Ofnet) and Kleine Ofnet (Small Ofnet), the origin of the term Ofnet is unknown. The crater rim here forms a characteristic ridge that rises on the northeast side from the village of Holheim in the crater. A dry valley runs along the south-west side, creating an impressive crater rim, but its shape is actually a result of erosion. The valley was certainly formed by a river after the impact, just as the crater was filled with a lake, at that time karstification had not yet set in. The ridge consists of limestone that was pushed outwards by the explosion. The rocks were scattered in the process, resulting in the formation of so-called Strahlenstein (ray stone), which is limestone that has conical fracture surfaces as opposed to flat fractures. These surfaces also have radial fluting, hence the name. Entire rock packages have been pushed over each other, and so there is an outcrop only a few hundred metres away where you can see layers of lower Jurassic over upper Jurassic, but which at the same time have not been tilted or rotated. A large quarry towards Holheim took advantage of exactly this geological situation, the limestones were already crushed and this made quarrying much easier. The disruption of the limestone was certainly an important prerequisite for the formation of the caves, which formed under a warm climate in a very small catchment area that drained either to the crater lake or to the valley. About ten million years ago, the orogeny of the Alps caused the uplift of the Alb plateau. Large-scale karstification set in, the drainage moved deeper, the caves became fossil caves, and at some point the valley became a dry valley.
The caves were first systematically investigated between 1875 and 1876, by the Stuttgart priest and geologist Oscar Fraas. He also discovered stone tools and animal bones that probably date from the Mesolithic period, between 5000 and 7000 BP. However, he did not carry out any archaeological excavation. The researcher Robert Rudolf Schmidt from Tübingen examined the Ofnet caves in 1901 and 1905, 1907 and 1908. He found two nests in the Great Ofnet, which together contained 33 human skulls. At that time they could not be dated, so he interpreted them as a parallel to a similar-looking deposit of a human skull in the Mas d'Azil cave. However, the resulting dating was later refuted. The pharmacist and local historian Ernst Frickhinger and the archaeologist Ferdinand Birkner carried out further excavations in 1934 and 1936. The Ofnet caves were visited by people from the Moustérian (Middle Palaeolithic, 40,000 a) to the Magdalenian and in the Middle Stone Age. Radiocarbon dating later revealed that the skulls date from the Middle Stone Age around 9700 BP.
Of course, the finds of human skulls arranged in nests were particularly spectacular. One nest with 27 skulls and a second nest with six skulls, both bedded in red ochre, all skulls were facing west or towards the cave exit. Ten of them were from women, four from men and 19 from children. The female skulls were adorned with jewellery, 4000 perforated snails and 200 pierced deer teeth were probably originally threaded into necklaces or nets, but the thread has decayed. Completely unhealed skull injuries suggest violent death, but they could also have been post-mortem. The fact that the lower jaw and cervical vertebrae were found in all the skulls suggests that heads, not skulls, were buried. Obviously the skulls were separated from the bodies, but whether this was done post-mortem or by decapitation cannot be determined. Whether they were victims of their own tribe in violent confrontations, accident victims or executed enemies is equally unclear. The fact that they were buried together, however, gives the impression that they died together, but the reason can only be speculated. Theories have been formulated about a martial massacre, a ritual sacrifice and even cannibalism. Without scientific evidence these are only speculations. That it was a form of skull cult, on the other hand, is obvious. The red ochre and the jewellery as well as the orientation suggest a burial ritual.
The rather unspectacular Ofnet caves have also made it into the media as a result of this discovery. They were mentioned in a Spiegel article and in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and by Yuval Noah Harari in his book A Brief History of Mankind. This notoriety was probably also the reason why the US astronauts of the Apollo 14 and Apollo 17 missions visited the Ofneth caves as part of their geological field training in the Nördlinger Ries.
From the federal road 466 to Nördlingen, a paved road branches off opposite the turnoff to Ederheim and leads to the remains of a Roman estate. There is also enough space to park here. A visit to the estate is very worthwhile, there are also signs with explanations. From here, the cave entrances at the top of the hill are already clearly visible. The slope is a sheep pasture with short grass, so you can easily reach the caves in a 10-minute uphill walk even without a path. The caves have very informative signs with photos and explanations of the archaeological excavations. After visiting the caves, it is recommended to climb another 5 minutes to the top of the crater rim. From here you have a wonderful view of the Nördlinger Ries and the Ipf.