With over 40,000 finds, the fossil deposit is one of the most important of its kind. As a “window to prehistoric times”, it allows a unique look into the history of the earth around 47 million years ago. The fossils were exceptionally well preserved in the oil shale of the pit. The best preserved finds include numerous, partly completely preserved specimens of the little primitive horse
Messel Pit: Facts
|on 0.7 km²; exceptionally well preserved fossils in the oil shale from 49 million years ago; unique information about ancient tertiary flora and the early phase of mammalian development; 100 verified vertebrate species, including 40 mammal species; Finds of more than 30 complete skeletons of the Messel primeval horse (Propalaeotherium parvulum), but also a cobblestone crocodile (Allognathosuchus gracilis), a finger animal (Heterohyus), a primeval bat (Archaeoncyteris pollex), a hedgehog-like insectivore (Macroigrocotenerum)
|Germany, Hessen; see militarynous
|Messel, on the edge of the Odenwald, near Darmstadt, south of Frankfurt
|for flora and fauna one of the most important sites of the Eocene; Window into prehistory
Messel Pit: History
|first alligator fossil discovery
|Establishment of the Messel trade union
|first systematic paleontological investigations
|Messel opencast mine part of the IG Farben Group
|Planning to set up a landfill
|Acquisition by the state of Hesse
|since June 14, 1991
|Entry as soil and cultural monument
|Opening of the visitor center
A bridge to the past
Nobody will ever enter this jungle. The high forest of laurel, walnut and tea bush plants, which are overgrown by lianas, is followed by a border of dense shrubbery. At the bottom of the lake, a belt of reed-like plants encircles the water surface, which is covered over and over with water lily leaves. Here and there delicate flowers of water lilies and lotuses break through the dense green. A group of only around 50 centimeters high primeval horses come to the shore – securing on all sides – to quench their thirst after a rich meal of leaves and wild grapes. An attentive hunter silently cuts through the water – and shortly afterwards a violent splash heralds the success of the alligator. The herd flees in frantic panic while numerous birds soar excitedly out of the bushes. Minutes later everything is calm again. The finger animal followed the spectacle motionless from a palm tree and is now scurrying back into the protective darkness of the jungle.
47 million years pass. Nothing reminds us of the events of that morning, of the lake, which has long since disappeared, of the jungle and its residents. Despite the early hour, loud hammer blows penetrate from the bottom of the former opencast mine up to the visitor platform. But oil shale has not been industrially mined here for crude oil production since the 1960s. After the mine was closed, it was initially amateur palaeontologists who looked for fossil treasures from the Eocene Lake. But now these “gold rush times” are over. Because since 1975 only excavations by scientific institutions have been permitted. With sledgehammers and wedges, the respective excavation teams break square-meter blocks out of the black rock in order to split them into thin layers with long knives. Work has to be done quickly, as the rock, which contains a lot of water and is exposed to the air, quickly dries out, tears and falls apart. In the course of the investigations, a few mudfish were found that lived in the former lake in addition to bone pike and various types of perch. These ancient animals, which are millions of years old, are carefully packed, labeled and registered in the excavation book, stating the coordinates of the site. Iridescent jewel beetles, winged ants about 15 centimeters tall, leaf remains, fruits and seeds are also collected and cataloged. But the search for the sensation continues: And finally, a bump on the mudstone slab gives hope. The top layer of oil shale is removed, the brown bones and fur-like skin shadows of a mammal become visible.
Fortunately for science, the skeletons of vertebrates can be completely preserved in Messel, as can skin, fur and feather structures, as well as stomach and intestinal contents. The deposit is particularly important because the spectrum of Middle Eocene creatures is accessible in a variety and quality that is currently not known from any other site anywhere in the world.
Today it is hard to imagine that this unique piece of earth’s history was threatened. For many years there were plans to use the apparently worthless site as a garbage dump. It was only through years of commitment from private individuals and scientists as well as the mobilization of the public that the grueling fight against a landfill could be successfully ended for the preservation of the fossil deposit. After the acquisition of the Messel Pit by the State of Hesse and the subsequent protection, it is now ensured that this fascinating natural heritage will be permanently preserved for posterity.