Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt

Kašpar Maria Sternberg

Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt (1820-1838)

Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt (1820-1838)

Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt (FVW) is one of the seminal and fundamental works in palaeobotany. It is the first fully scientific and comprehensive survey of fossil plants. During our studies we have realized that the complete set of FVW is quite rare, being available at only a few libraries around the world. Its importance was increased in 1954, when the International Botanical Congress decided that the date of issue of the first part of FVW would mark the beginning of modern palaeobotanical nomenclature. FVW is also important as an original source containing more than 600 original diagnoses of genera and species of essential fossil plants, and illustrations of numerous type specimens. Additionally, it represents a valuable item of scientific art, as all 100 coloured engravings are masterpieces of their own. The main purpose of the present reprinting of FVW is to make this important book available to the broader scientific and antiquarian public.

Sternberg issued the FVW on his own during the years 1820-1838. The work consists of eight parts of quarto size. They are usually bound in two volumes that contain separately inserted plates. The exact publication dates of each separate part is difficult to reconstruct. Z. Kvaček and J. Kvaček (1992) list these dates summarized from various sources.

Tab. Presumed dates of issue of FVW
I.1.1-241-13VII. (31. XII.) 1820
I2.1-3314-26I.-VIII. 1821
I3.1-3927-39I.-V. 1823
I4.1-48, I-XLII40-59, A-EIX. 1825
II.5.-6.1-801-26III.-IV. 1833
II7.-8.81-22027-68,A,BIX.-X. 1838

Illustrations are a very important part of the work. They were prepared gradually by several painters as the FVW grew. Sternberg hired several notable artists to depict the specimens in detail, the most important of whom were I. D. Preyssler, E. A. Auinger and F. Both for the first half of the work, and J. Schmedla, J. Rössert and F. X Fieber on the second. A detailed study of Sternberg’s painters was published by Cleal (et al. 2005).I. Sturm made all of the engravings. The paintings used as models for the engravings, and the entire manuscript of FVW, are still kept at the National Museum in Prague. These illustrations are very objective and detailed, most of which constitute faithful depictions of fossil plants. Sometimes, particularly when repeating patterns are involved, the figures are schematized, and in rare cases the outlines of the specimens are distorted.

Lepidodendron lycopodioides

Scientific content

The first volume consists of four parts. Each part has its own introduction, in which Sternberg summarized, discussed, and critically revised previously published accounts of plant fossils. In the descriptive part Sternberg described each figured fossil. In the systematic part, which he called Tentamen (attempt), but which we now call systematics, Sternberg recorded diagnoses of genera and species, type localities, and other information.

In the Tentamen, Sternberg attempted to formulate new systematics for fossil plants. This was an innovative approach at that time, as previous authors, including Schlotheim in his Petrefactenkunde, arranged their fossils (or petrefications) according to an artificial inorganic system. Sternberg decidedly rejected the traditional understanding of fossils as mere geological curiosities, and formulated a natural system based on the accepted Linnean classification of living plants. Therefore, the Tentamen at the end of the first part of FVW represents the first example of modern systematics applied to fossil plants; and this is the way fossil plants are still studied.

Starting point

One of the essential principles of palaeobotanical nomenclature is that of priority. It is defined by a specific date called the starting point. All diagnoses published after that time are considered validly published. In 1954, the Eighth Botanical Congress in Paris established the year 1820, when the first part of FVW appeared, as the starting point for the nomenclature of fossil plants. There were a number of reasons for this, the main one being Sternberg’s precise approach to diagnoses of the genera and species of fossil plants. Many earlier students of palaeobotany, including Schlotheim, did not publish diagnoses of genera, which are the key characters for the stability of the nomenclature. Another reason was that Sternberg initiated modern palaeobotany by his understanding of fossil plants as the remains of once living organisms.

Sternberg’s collection

“No other collection in the world bears so many, so nice and rare specimens of premium scientific importance”. These are the words of Alexander von Humboldt while he was visiting Sternberg’s collection (Nebeský 1868) in 1838. Sternberg had gathered and organized a very rich collection over a period of years, containing specimens from nearly all parts of Europe. His first specimens of fossil plants were inherited from his brother Jáchym. Using his scientific contacts, Sternberg described specimens from all of the then-known European localities during his journeys. The collection contained 1398 specimens (Palacký 1868), including petrified trunks of lycopods and large blocks showing the leaves of Cordites. Sternberg intended to donate the collection to some sort of public institution. This idea eventually resulted in the foundation of the Patriotic Museum in Prague in 1818 (later called the National Museum). In 1822 Sternberg made a donation to the museum that included his entire collection of fossils and minerals, herbarium, and his rich library. The collection of fossil plants is probably the most valuable part of Sternberg’s gift. A revision of the collection, including photographic documentation, was published by J. Kvaček and Straková (1997). In FVW Sternberg also used specimens that other scientists or collectors sent to him for classification. He depicted them and returned them to the sender. This is why some of the specimens figured in FVW are housed in other European natural history museums, such as London, Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna.


After more than 150 years, Kašpar M. Sternberg’s monumental work Versuch einer geognostisch-botanischen Darstellung der Flora der Vorwelt has not lost its importance to current paleobotanical practice. Sternberg understood palaeobotany as a science based on international co-operation. From the scientific perspective, some parts of the book contain surprisingly fresh and modern ideas and conclusions that are still valid in palaeobotany.


© 2006 National Museum, Czech Geological Survey