Sunday, 22 September 2019

grube messel

On my way back to my workweek apartment, I finally took the opportunity to explore the Messel pit, a UNESCO World Heritage site though probably singular among that group for not yielding up its treasures and those that have been unearthed belong in collections spread across the globe. Though the outline of the caldera seems apparent now, the volcanic lake that gives to researchers on average a well preserved fossil specimen once every quarter hour would not exist as it does today, looking back and documenting in great detail a snap-shot of life circa forty-eight million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, if not for a series of accidents, beginning with quarry operations in 1859, when oil shale was discovered.
I happened to arrive just in time to take the last tour of the day, the only way to venture down into the pit. Miners back at the time were discovering fossils in this Lagerstätte but due the depositional characteristics of the formation (most remains discovered are not petrified or mummified but captured as fleetingly delicate impressions) but after a few hours’ dehydration, the fossils would disintegrate into a big fish tale. Demand and war drove digging which waxed and waned over the years, the quarry being used as a place to store the rubble of Darmstadt after its destruction during WWII, and during the early 1970s, the place was nearly turned into a permanent landfill (the war also created a make-work site to employ locals breaking bricks—and as amateur palæontologists while the economy recovered) until the decision was overturned by strong protests and the land was purchased by the state of Hesse. Hobby fossil-hunters developed a resin-transfer technique to preserve fossils once exposed outside of their containing matrix around this time and has been widely adopted as standard practise. Constant pumping keeps the ground water from welling up and universities continue slow and careful excavation.
We were able to inspect some recent discoveries, the slates kept from dehydrating in a water bath and were privileged to pass around a fish fossil (see also). Though the mascot of the Messel Pit is Ida, the singular Darwinius Masillæ—a transitional lemur-like creature that also had characteristics prefiguring the simians, primates being distinguished in the main by the wetness or dryness of their noses—the site was finally elevated in 1995 with UNESCO status not because of any individual find, including crocodiles, giant squirrels and nine pairs of copulating turtles caught in the act—far predating Pompeii, but rather because of the sheer volume and scientific rigour that it took to share what one uncovered, which underscores the problem of preservation.