Entrance strictly forbidden
That’s what it says, the sign on the metal gates in front of me, the gate leading to the Messel Pit. The sign is bright yellow – yellow for danger. Locked steel gates with a jagged edge on top; there’s no escaping the message. Luckily for me, I’m here with geologist Yvonne Roeper. She has a key.
It’s important that people don’t enter the Messel Pit on their own, however tempting. Wild animals roam the area: lizards, foxes, boars. They’re elusive though – Yvonne has only ever encountered a fox – and the only potentially dangerous one is the boar. But even more dangerous are the slippery dirt paths – and the risk of falling.
The Messel Pit is the world’s most fertile fossil ground. More than 40 000 fossils have been found so far. I’m super-excited to be here. The Messel Pit, you see, is where Ida, our oldest ancestor, a 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae, was found.
Ever since I first saw Ida at the Natural History Museum in Oslo six years ago, I’ve wanted to see where she was found, where she walked about, where she broke her wrist and fell to her death, the poor little thing.
I want to enter the pit immediately, but Yvonne makes me wait a bit. First, I must see the museum. She can sense my impatience though, so we make a quick detour to the viewing platform to have a look at the pit from above.
From here, the pit looks just like what it is: an unassuming hole in the ground. A rather large hole – 1 km in diameter – but a hole nonetheless. Venturing into the pit is a greatly improved experience if you know a bit more about it. That seems to be a recurring pattern during this sojourn through Germany’s history.
The museum presents the evolution of the pit. It was formed when a maar volcano erupted, tore into the landscape and created a lake. Messel Pit fossils were discovered in 1875, though at the time, the site’s mining potential was deemed more important.
Mining stopped in the 1970s and plans were underfoot to turn the site into a rubbish dump. Oh, horror! Luckily, the public vigorously protested, and the rest is history. In 1995, the Messel Pit was added to the World Heritage list.
Wondering what a maar volcano is, by the way? I didn’t know either. You can see a short film taken by a pilot flying over an erupting maar volcano in Ukinrek, Alaska in 1977.
In the museum, you can see various fossils, as well. And there’s an interesting virtual borehole experience, a bit like a fairground ride: entering a circular chamber, you’re brought deep into the ground to extract the core you can find outside.
Finally – finally – Yvonne and I descend into the 60-metre deep crater. We’re surrounded by elders, nettles and birch trees. I hear frogs croaking.
Their ancestors roamed the area all those millions of years ago. Along with birds, bats and snakes. And, admittedly even more thrilling – apes, tapirs, anteaters, lemurs and horses. Some are the ancestors of present-day mammals, others are evolutionary experiments that failed, such as the Ailuravus macrurus, a large squirrel-like rodent, about 1 metre long. I see a very different Europe painted before me; a continent of rainforests, volcanic lakes and a significantly warmer climate. Carbon dioxide levels were high, causing much higher temperatures than today.
Yvonne shows me a model of a tapir… or so I think. It is, in fact, a miniature horse, 50 cm tall, even smaller than a Falabella.
Along the way, we walk past a metal version of the largest fossil discovered here: a 4-metre-long crocodile.
The well-preserved fossils are found in oil shale: black, flaky rock, created by mud and decaying plants and animals. The shale is soft enough that I can prise the layers apart with my finger nails. On one half, I see the outline of a leaf, every detail.
Even stomach contents have been found; a wealth of information from near the beginning of our time. Mammalian time.
Ida was found in the early 1980s – by a private individual. Today, amateurs are not allowed to dig in the Messel Pit. However, to encourage private collectors to share their finds, fossils taken out before the pit became a heritage site, have been given an amnesty.
And so, in 2009, the little Darwinius Massilae was sold to the University of Oslo. Palaeontologist Jørn Hurum at the unversity named her Ida after his young daughter. At first, Ida was hailed as the elusive missing link. As it turned out, she was not that exactly. She’s more like its cousin.
But who knows what else rests peacefully in the pit, waiting to be discovered. During excavation season, new fossils are found every day.
Messel Pit practicals
- The Messel Pit is about 35 km from Frankfurt. It’s easiest reached by car.
- If you’re in nearby Darmstadt, it’s a short 10 km bike ride away.
- Visitor Centre opening hours are 10 – 17 daily, except for a few holidays around Christmas/New Year.
- Visitor Centre entrance fee is 10 € for adults; discounts for families (free for children under 7).
Let the fossils take you back to the dawn of time.
- Guided tours are available (and highly recommended!), mostly in German, but English tours can be arranged:
- Schnuppertours (taster tours) last one hour and take you part of the way into the crater. From 1 November – 20 March, they’re organised daily at noon, and additionally at 1400 on the weekends. More frequent between 20 March and 1 November. As spaces are limited, reservations are essential! Price is 7 €/person (free for children under 7). I like the poetic description of this tour: Berühren Sie den Ölschiefer und versetzen Sie sich zurück beim Anblick der Fossilien in die lang vergangene Zeit des Eozäns, die Zeit der Morgenröte – it means something like this: Touch the oil shales and let the fossils take you back to the Eocene Era, the dawn of time.
- Grubenwanderungen (pit walks) last 2 hours, take you into the centre of the crater and cost 9 €/person (free for children under 7).
Disclosure: On this journey through German history, I was a guest of UNESCO Germany and the German National Tourist Organisation. Of course, anything I write is entirely up to me. Goes without saying, really.