One of my goals while living in Germany is to visit every one of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As of today there are 40 sites, and we’ve been to 28 of them.

The Messel Fossil Pit is one of three natural sites in Germany.


It’s only a 40 minute drive from us, and we pass the sign for it all the time, so I can’t believe it took us this long to check it out.

About 47 million years ago, give or take a few hundred thousand years or so, this area of Germany was a sub-tropical rain forest with lakes.

(Oh, and if you’re reading this in the year 1002015, you’ll know that it was about 48 million years ago.)

That was hard to imagine on the cold winter day when we visited, while there was still some snow on the ground.


But then one day a maar volcano in the area exploded.

A maar volcano is a low volcano, and when the magma from it seeps out and makes contact with groundwater, the resulting steam causes an explosion.

The explosion creates a huge hole in the ground that normally fills up with water, forming a crater lake.

At the Messel site, a huge variety of mammals, fish, birds, insects, reptiles and plants were fossilized after the explosion.

They were remarkably well-preserved, with some of them being complete skeletons with skin, fur feathers and/or hair intact.


In some of the fossils, scientists found fetuses still inside the pregnant mother.

Several pairs of mating turtles, (yup, caught in the act – literally!) have also been found at the site, as have unhatched eggs.


Scientists could also tell what some of the animals had for their last meal by examining preserved stomach contents.



In the 19th century, coal and oil shale were mined at the site.

Oil shale is processed to produce raw oil, and at the site you can still see the waste heap that resulted from this process.

After the mining operation ceased, there were plans to turn the site into a landfill, which the locals protested.

In between the time that the mining stopped and the plans for the landfill were scrapped, amateurs collected fossils from the site.


Of the tens of thousands of fossils in the collection, many of them come from these amateurs.

This is still a highly-regulated working fossil excavation site today, and visitors are generally not allowed out to the actual pit.


Guided field trips are given just a few times a year and people make reservations well in advance to be part of the tour.

Visitors can, however, walk to an outdoor viewing platform that overlooks the pit.


The viewing platform is free, but the visitor center has a fee.

The fee is somewhat steep at 10 Euro per adult, but I highly recommend going to the visitor center as you will learn a lot and see some of the fossils.


There are a couple of films you can watch in the visitor center.

One is a sort of IMAX type of thing that gives geological information about the area.

It can actually make you a little dizzy watching it.

Another is about scientists exploring a site in Alaska to obtain information about maar volcanoes.

And there is also one about the amateur fossil collectors.


There are numerous displays in the visitor center and you could easily spend a few hours there depending on how interested you are in that sort of things.

If you wanted to learn even more about the Messel fossils, there are some on display in a few museums including the Hesse State Museum in nearby Darmstadt.

The Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt also has some of the fossils on display.


Now that we’ve finally visited the Messel Fossil Pit site, I would like to go to at least one of the museums to learn a little more.

If you’ve been to the site or the museums, let us know!


About the author: Trish