The Messel Fossil Pit: A world-class experience

FRANKFURT, GERMANY–Last year at this time I had the privilege of visiting the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale on an expedition led by my friend Matthew James of Sonoma State University in California. It was an extraordinary opportunity to visit one of the most important fossil sites in history. Today our IBA field trip had a tour of another UN World Heritage fossil locality: the Messel Pit near Darmstadt, Germany. These Eocene oil shales were formed under very unusual conditions. They are maar deposits formed in a volcanic crater. Catastrophic releases of poisonous gases, the hypothesis goes, occasionally killed the surrounding fauna, causing many to tumble into the anoxic lake to be preserved in amazing detail. This is the home of Ida (Darwinius masillae), the controversial primate fossil now in Oslo (which I also saw last summer).

Our field party was taken down into the center of the maar to an excavation site run by the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. There we watched a team of paleontologists excavate blocks of the shale and examine them for fossils.

Paleontologists extracting large blocks of Messel oil shale to examine for fossils.

Close-up of the Messel Shale. It contains about 40% water in outcrop, and so dries quickly in the sun. Fossils must be kept wet until preserved by various chemicals.

One of the paleontologists splitting Messel Shale with a large knife. The waste pile of examined pieces is behind her. Note the spray bottle of water beside her chair. The fossils must be kept from drying out until they are preserved.

Bits of an Eocene bird found in the Messel Shale while we were visiting.

An artesian well in the center of the Messel structure made when geologists drilled over 400 meters into the shales below. Yes, the tradition is to drink a glass of the water! (And I did.)

An outcrop of the Messel Oil Shale near the eastern side of the pit.

With this memorable paleontological experience our International Bryozoology Association field trip ended. I am grateful to Priska Schäfer of Kiel University for the fantastic (and complicated) organization and leadership. My teaching and research has been greatly enhanced, and I made wonderful new friends as well.

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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2 Responses to The Messel Fossil Pit: A world-class experience

  1. Pingback: Our Cenozoic Mammalian Cousins (November 17-21) | History of Life course at The College of Wooster

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