Grube Messel – A Fossil Site near Darmstadt
Today I am writing about Germany’s first natural site that was included in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List – The Grube Messel ( the Messel Pit fossil site). In 1995, this site became the first of the three natural heritage sites ( The other 2 being the Wadden Sea and the Beech tree forests that spread across 18 countries in Europe) in Germany.
So far, more than 10,000 fossils from the Eocene period (48 million years ago) have been recovered from the Maar Lake, located at the site, and around 3,000 new finds are added every year. ( A maar is a volcanic crater caused by an eruption when groundwater comes in contact with hot lava or magma. When filled with water to form a shallow lake, the maar is called a Maar Lake).
Luckily for the residents of Darmstadt, this place is not too far away. Located just about 10 km from Darmstadt City centre, this place holds a treasure of information for history and science lovers.
A brief history of how it came to be recognized as a natural heritage site may interest my readers.
The Story behind Grube Messel
This place was first identified as a site that contained vast oil shale deposits. This led to the setting up of a factory to extract crude oil by smouldering the oil shale. During this time, fossils of animals were found here. But it was only when mining became uneconomical (due to the fall in oil prices), leading to the shutting down of the factory, that amateur collectors started visiting the site and collecting fossils. They used techniques to preserve the fossils used to this date. Later this site became home to a cement factory, then identified as a garbage dump. Thanks to public resistance, that didn’t last long, and the site got its spot among the Natural heritage sites in the world due to the sheer number of fossils found on this site.
Today, the Senkenberg Institute, takes care of the preservation of the Messel pit and carrying out excavations at the site and preserving the finds.
The early finds of fossils of crocodiles at the site, followed by those of various other plant and animal species, led to a great understanding of the past. It helped explain the evolution of plants and animals and the development and changes that happened on the earth as time progressed. The site boasts of finds of animal skin, plants, feathers, and even stomach contents of animals that have been preserved for future studies.
Here are some of the experiences for visitors at Grube Messel:
1. Tour the pit area: Hike in the pit area ( called Grubenwanderung in German) that lasts 2 hours, or go on a short tour ( called Schnuppertour), which lasts 1 hour, OR go for a more detailed program to understand fossils and how they are found, with the Grabungsimpressionen program.
2. Children can also be enrolled in a themed workshop ( Called Geowerkstatt). These can be booked using the link:
If you wish to see specific programs for families, kids, senior citizens, etc., check out this link:
These programs are carried out by professionals who explain everything about the fossil site. The format of the tour is informal and interactive. It is informative and educative, and, at the same time, interesting.
Note that access to the pit area is only possible with a guide. Hence booking one of the tours mentioned above is necessary to access the fossil site.
However, if you don’t want to book a tour but still want to peek into how the site looks, there is a viewing platform which one can reach by climbing up a ramp.
3. Visit the museum: The museum showcases the finds at the site and also takes you through the process of evolution and how it can be understood using these finds.
On a side note: There is also a permanent exhibition at the Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, where the finds from the Messel site have been exhibited. More details can be found here:
4. In addition, there are activities for children under 12 years of age: These activities are themed around nature, evolution, stories around the forest, and the fossil site. These include:
Book reading session: Details here:
Solving puzzles: Details here:
Drawing painting activities: Details here:
5. Girl’s day: Every year, on the 27th of April, Girls day/Boys day takes place in Hessen.
I have written an article about Girl’s day/Boys’ Day. Check it out.
On this day, Grube Messel offers a day full of learning for girls above 7th grade. Girls get insights into the diverse activities of geoscientists and get to know scientific working methods in the Messel Pit.
More details can be found here:
There is a small restaurant and a shop where souvenirs, books, etc., can be purchased.
The Grube Messel is an excellent place of learning for old and young alike. Along with offering a fascinating insight into the story of our evolution, it gives a good understanding of the work and scientific methods used by geologists and scientists in unravelling the mysteries of our past.
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