Frederik had been wanting to go to this ‘Grube Messel‘ (or ‘Messel pit‘ in English) for over a year. It did not help that he had seen a whole documentary on this pit alone. So, when a year had passed and our American friend came to visit us again, Frederik booked us the family tour on the spot. This tour on a beautiful Indian summer day late September started at 11 o’clock sharply – which means 2 minutes early in Germany. So, we all were pretty excited – for different reasons – when we finally arrived five minutes late. (We – mistakenly – drove into the village first, which is very cute by the way.)
Joining a big group of other families, the guide took us to the edge of the pit first. With the help of some sort of historical folding ruler, she took us back into the time where the dino’s were already extinct and the first mammals started to arise. We then descended into the pit. A little guessing game followed on the trail. She got out little containers with all types of plants and herbs that we have in our kitchen: nutmeg, cocoa powder, tea leaves,… All these plants used to grow where we were standing.
Walking further down, we got to the first little shed and a metal structure that looked like a rusty fountain. She showed us the pump house in the distance, where a pump works day and night to keep the ground we were standing on dry. If not, this volcanic lake would fill up again in a matter of months. Yes, volcanic, which was hard to imagine until she opened up the valve making the water from deep below rise up into the rusty fountain. The cleanest of drinking water emerged, if the stink of sulfur doesn’t bother you.
Just to be clear: the lake is not a ‘crater lake’, a crater filling up with water. It is a ‘Maar’, that is, the result of a very powerful explosion, due to the enormous amounts of water in the ground, combined with the heat of volcanic activity underneath it. The deep lake that was created, provided the perfect conditions to fossilize everything that fell into the lake. As leaves, or dead bats, or beetles, fell into the lake and drifted to the bottom of it, a thin layer of algae covered them up, fossilizing them over the years, even capturing the shimmering colors of the beetles.
Opening the little shed, she showed us replicas of the fossils they had found here: the first horses, not bigger than a dog, before they evolved into the animals as we know them now. (They found a whole herd, in fact). Another shed further along the trail revealed crocodile fossils and snakes. And one of the most valuable fossil on earth: a little monkey, our earliest cousin. Everything that lived around the lake ended up dead in the lake at some point, partly because dead animals washed into the lake, partly because of the deadly gasses still erupting out of the lake once so often, killing all creatures in its immediate proximity at once, an extraordinary opportunity to learn about life on earth before our time.
Next on the tour was looking for fossils ourselves! The tour guide took us to a pile of what looked like paper thin charcoal: oil shale. Handing us the left-overs of an official dig, we got to look for our own little fossils. Most of us found beautiful ‘prints’ of leaves, a very fun experience. We were not allowed to take the fossils with us though.
After a climb out of the pit and back into the present, we decided to also do the museum next to it. It had some very educational displaces on volcanic activities and how ‘Maren’ are formed, and – very, very cool- a forty meters long sample dig into the lake’s underground. But the museum could not compete with the tour we just had.
The only downside I should mention, is the fact that their website and most of their displays are only in German as was our tour. The guide did tell me they do have English spoken tours, but I could not find any information about it on their website. It is truly a shame, because this is not only a very interesting site, but also a beautiful place to visit. Nature has been undisturbed since 1995, making it into a sanctuary for local wild life.
So, to the Welterbe Grube Messel gGmbH, please step up your game. In English.
To my English speaking friends, if you made it to this part of the world, go visit the site. We will happily tag along and translate for you.