Issue 14 (July 1999) this column unveiled the
chequered history of the English town Berwick-upon-Tweed. One of the
trivia bits mentioned was a Civil Service mistake at the end of World
War II. Well, here’s another tale that includes a nice administrative
oversight, this time from Germany.
About 30 km south of Frankfurt-am-Main is the Messel Fossil Pit, which
some say is as significant for palaeontology as Pompeii is for
Since the 19th century there have been unearthed at this location
countless well-preserved fossils of mammals (especially proto-horses)
that were trapped 49 million years ago when the pit was a lake in the
middle of a tropical rainforest. At that time (the Middle Eocene
period), eons before continental drift, this area was far to the south
of its current location — indeed, where Sicily is today.
Here is a brief chronology of the pit’s fate in modern times.
From 1873, for about 90 years, it was a profitable site for brown coal
and later oil shale mining, in the 1940s using enormous distillation
furnaces. By 1962, when it became cheaper to import oil than extract it,
a cement factory operated here, but it failed in the 1970s.
“Aha,” thought government officials, “what a great place for a waste
Yet for some unaccountable reason there was a bureaucratic slip-up and
the plans that had been drawn up got forgotten temporarily. Those locals
who had recognised the historical value of the site took advantage of
the blunder, and in 1975 a petition was started, together with
demonstrations and talks by experts.
All this resulted in a court case that with appeals dragged on for
twelve years. In the end the legal victory went to palaeontology, and
the state was obliged to buy the site and declare it a cultural
The culmination of these civic and legal efforts came in 1995 when the
Messel Fossil Pit was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.