Germany’s Artificial, Erupting Volcano

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, August 31, 2014
Insel Stein und Villa Hamilton in Wörlitz
“E’en from the tomb the voice of nature cries, / E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.” —Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard

In A Nutshell

When Germany’s prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz went on his coming-of-age tour of Europe, he was absolutely mesmerized by Italy’s Mount Vesuvius. There’s not much in the way of volcanoes in Germany, though, so what’s a crown prince to do? He ended up building his own working volcano (at left in the picture above), one that fell into disrepair with the toll of the world wars and the Berlin Wall. Now it’s been given new life, though, and “erupts” several times a year.

The Whole Bushel

One of the standard coming-of-age rituals for European nobility has long been going on a tour of the continent. When Germany’s Leopold III Friedrich Franz went on his tour in the 1760s, he was enamored of Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. The city that had been buried by the volcanic eruption in A.D. 79 was being excavated by that time, and there was already an academic organization in place that had been established to document the findings. By the 1760s, excavation had gone from something rather hit-or-miss to something much more systematic, and Germany’s prince was very obviously fascinated by the entire thing—and the volcano that had created such mass destruction.

The prince returned to his native Germany, but his experiences in Naples were obviously something that stuck with him. Twenty-two years later, he decided to build his own volcano.

When it was completed, it became the only artificial volcano in Europe. Built in the years between 1788 and 1794, Stein (Stone) Island’s main feature was a five-story brick building that was then covered with rocks to give it a more mountainous, volcanic feel. Inside the structure were a series of fireplaces, set inside the very top of the cone-like interior, along with an oven that’s used by today’s pyrotechnics experts to create the sparks that go along with an eruption.

The whole thing sat on an artificial island, created when the prince ordered the surrounding area to be flooded. Nestled around the island were a series of grottoes, and a small villa was built nearby in recognition of the longtime friendship between the German crown and Sir William Hamilton, British antiquities collector. Nearby he constructed another building, done in the style of a Greek amphitheater, that he turned into personal offices that would overlook his volcano.

Because it wouldn’t be a volcano without lava, it was designed to erupt. The precise details of just how the eruption was created were never recorded, but with the recent preservation of the site, researchers have been able to take a pretty good run at guessing. They’ve even gotten it working again.

It hasn’t been an easy task. The volcano’s creator died in 1820, and his heirs showed little interest in his rather odd passion. Neglect from the family, followed by wars and the erection of the Berlin Wall meant that the estate fell largely into disrepair. Overgrown and in ruins, it had deteriorated to the point where the site was condemned, when part of the volcano collapsed and killed someone in 1983.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the volcano, island and the surrounding buildings have all been undergoing a huge restoration project, with a long way to go still ahead. There are also some nearby Roman baths, temples, and sculptures that have suffered the same ill effects of time as the volcano and are on their way to being preserved.

After five years of restoration work on the volcano alone, it’s active again—thanks to some pyrotechnics experts and the help of the only surviving historical account of the volcano’s eruptions. Apparently quite the evening out for the German prince and his friends, it’s once again open to the public. The volcano itself only erupts a few times a year, and those times aren’t being made public.

It’s a volcano, after all—there should be some element of surprise.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image: Doris Antony
Smithsonian: That Time a German Prince Built an Artificial Volcano
The Magic Rock at Worlitz
Excavations under the Bourbons between 1748 and 1815