Messel Fossil Pit
[ Issue 36 ]

Messel Fossil Pit fascinates Emily Bronto

For your reading pleasure Bikwil gives you Messel Fossil Pit

Messel Fossil Pit

Fizzgig describes how, thanks to a bit of bureaucratic forgetfulness, a site in Germany of great importance to paleontology was able to be protected from further development.

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From the Back Verandah — Fizzgig


In 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 archaeology.

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 dump!”

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 monument.

The culmination of these civic and legal efforts came in 1995 when the Messel Fossil Pit was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

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