Messel Pit is one of the best sites in the world for discovering incredibly preserved fossils. The Messel Pit is a disused quarry in Germany around 35 kilometers or 22 miles southeast of Frankfurt. Previously bituminous shale was mined there but now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its significant geological and scientific importance. It is one of only a very few sites to have been World Heritage listed exclusively due to fossils.

In North America, there are several places that are rich in fossils where one can go fossil hunting - like in the Bay of Fundy in Canada's Nova Scotia. For modern fossils about human history, visit the White Sands National Park in the USA and see how fossilized footprints found there have forced scientists to rewrite the history of humans in North America.

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The History And Development of The Messel Pit

The pit was mined for brown coal and then oil shale in 1859 but it only become seriously scientifically excavated in the 1970s. Many of the most famous specimens have come from amateur collections.

The “oil shale” of the pit was formed from solidified sludge that was deposited at the bottom of an oxygen-poor lake. The water was still, allowing everything that sank down in the lake to be covered by fine sediments without being damaged.

  • Date: Deposits Formed In The Eocene 47 Million Years Ago
  • Sub-Tropical: At This Time, This Part of Germany Was Subtropical

The Messel deposits were formed 47 million years ago during the Eocene period. It is believed that there was a series of lakes that were surrounded by lush sub-tropical forests that supported an incredible diversity of life. It is thought that the Messel lake bed was likely a center point for drainage from the surrounding rivers and creeks.

The deposit extends 13 meters or 43 feet down and sits atop an older sandstone foundation.

Related: 10 Places Where Dinosaur Bones Have Been Uncovered

How Special The Messel Pit Is

"Messel Pit is the richest site in the world for understanding the living environment of the Eocene, between 57 million and 36 million years ago. In particular, it provides unique information about the early stages of the evolution of mammals and includes exceptionally well-preserved mammal fossils, ranging from fully articulated skeletons to the contents of stomachs of animals of this period."

UNESCO

What is remarkable is the stunning clarity and preservation of the fossils. Many are preserved in bewildering detail. The water was poor in oxygen and bacteria so organisms would take much longer to decay.

  • Designated: World Heritage Site Since 1995

Today the Messel Pit provides the best-preserved flora and fauna specimens of the Eocene. Not only does it preserve the bones of the animals, but also the fur, feathers, and "skin shadows" of some species.

  • Turtles: Nine Pairs Of Mating Turtles Have Been found (Likely Killed Suddenly By Toxic Volcanic Gas)
  • Fish: Over 10,000 Fossilized Fish of Many Species
  • Mammals: Pygmy Horses, Primates, Hedgehogs, Pangolins, Aardvarks, Bats, and others
  • Plants: Over 30 Distinct Plant Species Including Grapevines, Palm Leaves, Fruit, and More
  • Others: Crocodiles, Turtles, Salamanders, Snakes, and Others

Exhibit At Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt

The Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt offers a great Messel Pit permanent exhibition. Here one can see many of the publically available exhibits from the Messel Pit. See the remains of a prehistoric forest that was home to ancient horses that had toes with small hooves and fed on leaves and fruits.

The museum offers guided tours of the museum if one is interested in learning even more about the exhibits on display.

  • Adults: (from 18 years) 12:00 € ($13)
  • Location: In Frankfurt

Related: This Fossil Field In Iowa Reveals A Prehistoric Landscape That's 375 Million Years Old

Visiting The Messel Pit and Visitor Center

Tourists can only visit the Messel Pit as part of a guided tour. One needs to register for a guided tour in advance. There is both the Messel Pit and the visitor center and there is a small fee for both entrances. One can choose between a one-hour guided pit tour or a two-hour guided pit tour for a much deeper dive.

One Hour Tour:

On the one-hour tour, visitors will learn about how an ancient volcano was responsible for the crater lake. And how all the animals became trapped and preserved 48 million years ago.

  • Price: 7 € ($8) per person
  • Distance: Approx. 1km (0.6 miles) of Walking

Tour Hour Tour:

Their two-hour tour is great for those who would like a deeper dive into how new species develop and evolve and how old ones die out. One will see how evolution was captured in this pit and how this part of Germany was once a subtropical rainforest.

See the excavation sites and go to the lowest level of the pit. Feel the layers of shale oil and learn about a world long gone.

  • Price: €9 ($10) per person
  • Distance: Approx. 3km (1.7 Miles) of Walking

Next: Mistaken Point: Home To The Most Significant Fossils In The World