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January 07, 2007

Witnesses from the Past

The Monk went home yesterday evening. It's been great fun having him here and visiting places with him where we have not been ourselves for quite some time. Like the Landesmuseum in Darmstadt which among others holds a collection of skeletons found in the famous Messel pit.

The pit is a quarry between Frankfurt/Main and Darmstadt where oil shale was mined from 1869 until 1970. The first fossil, an alligator, was already found in 1875. The greatest problem turned out to be retrieving fossils from the oil shale. As soon as it becomes dry it crumbles easily and destroys the fossils within. In the 1960's, however, a method was developed to transfer the fossils from the oil shale into a bed of synthetic resin thereby preserving them permanently.

The oil shale in the Messel pit was formed by sedimentation in the eocene period about 47 milion years ago inside the explosion funnel of a 300 m deep volcanic lake. The great depth ensured that little turbulence and disturbance occurred at the bottom and this explains the subperb state the skeletons are in. Most fossil sites are happy to find partial skeletons but Messel is famous for its large number and variety of intact skeletons. Particularly so for the early knee-high form of our horses, Hyracotherium,of which more than 70 specimen were found. The other fossils inlcude reptiles, birds, fishes, mammals and even insects. The stag beetle is quite something to look at.

The exhibits in the museum have been arranged in a different and far better way than the one I remembered from my last visit more than 10 years ago. Then it was all in glass cases. Now pains have been taken to show some of the original environment as well and there is even a small excavation site where kids can go hunting for skeletons themselves.

Believe it or not - in the 1970's the Federal State of Hessen wanted to turn the pit into a waste disposal site. Planning went ahead until 1990. By then a broad resistance had formed among the population and the amount of waste had decreased drastically. In the end the waste disposal site plans were abandoned and the pit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on December 9 in 1995. This should ensure the future of it so that digging can go ahead and hopefully much more of the past life on this planet - long before we arrived - will come to the surface.

Posted by Mausi at January 7, 2007 01:07 PM

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