Messel Pit – A journey through time with fossils
Although I knew about the Messel pit, I only made it here this year. What I experienced there, I have summarized for you here:
How to get there
- By car: The Messel pit is very easy to reach by car. It is located near the exit Darmstadt Weiterstadt on the A5. The address is Roßdörfer Str. 108 in 64409 Messel. The parking lot at the visitor center is big enough and since you have to register in advance for a tour, there should really be no space problems.
- By train: Take the 75 train line to Messel station. From there it is about a two kilometer walk to the Messel Mine Visitor Center or take the bus line that follows.
- By bus: Take the F/U line bus from Darmstadt (or even from Messel train station) to the bus stop “Grube Messel – Besucherzentrum Grube Messel” at Landesstraße 3317. From there it is about 500 meters by foot.
The Messel Pit
The Messel pit has a history that goes back more than 150 years. And it dates back to a time when it was not clear what kind of treasure it contained.
Beginnings and mining
The history of the Messel Mine begins with the construction of a grass iron ore mine in 1859. Ore was mined first, then lignite and then oil shale, which was discovered after some time. This was then smoldered by the specially founded Messel trade union, which was necessary to extract oil from it. Until 1971, the year the mine was closed, the focus was on the mining of oil shale. The pit was closed because oil extraction was becoming increasingly unprofitable and therefore oil shale was no longer needed.
In the meantime, however, fossils have been found again and again during the excavation work.
Landfill vs. excavation site
Coincidentally, at a time when the extraction of oil shale was already unprofitable, a location for a waste disposal site was being sought in southern Hesse. The Messel pit met all the criteria and since at that time it was not yet known what the value and extent of the fossil finds would be, the choice was made quickly. This would have automatically led to the end of the excavations. But when more and more finds were made by fossil collectors during private excavations after the end of mining, some scientists realized what an incredible treasure they had right under their noses.
The Senkenberg Research Institute intervened and scientific work was carried out, which underlined the importance of the Messel pit. What followed was a 20-year struggle at both bureaucratic and political levels.
UNESCO World Heritage Messel Pit
In the end, the state of Hesse bought the pit for over 30 million marks and transferred the operation to the Senkenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft. Since then, oil shale has been mined there officially and for scientific purposes. In 1994, the Hessian Ministry of Science and Culture submitted an application for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List, as it had become clear in the meantime what an inestimable value the mine has for science. It is unique worldwide. So it was not surprising that the application was granted the following year and the Messel Pit was declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
The viewing platform on the southern slope was built in 1997 and with it the management of the mine was started. The visitor center followed 13 years later.
On time travel
The fossil finds in the Messel pit allow us an extraordinary view into the past 48 million years. They cover a wide range of plants and animals. For example, 200 plant species and more than 30 genera of mammals have been found fossilised. Some species could even only be described in more detail through the fossil finds in the Messel Pit.
The preservation in the oil shale is incredibly good. So good that in some cases stomach contents could be determined, allowing conclusions to be drawn about nutrition. With insects even the veins in the wings or the coloring of the carapace are visible. Usually such details are lost when something becomes a fossil. But in the Messel Pit the condition is uniquely good.
However, there is a conservation problem. Because the soft oil shale cracks enormously quickly as soon as it dries. Then it becomes flaky and crumbles. Since the 1960s, it has fortunately been possible to re-bed the fossils on synthetic resin and thus save them. Otherwise they would have to be stored permanently in a liquid, which is also done for demonstration purposes during guided tours.
Here are some impressions of the fossils you will be shown during the guided tour. The first picture shows fossilized excrements and the second picture are photos of fossils. On the last picture you can clearly see that the oil shale is still wet.
The Visitor Center of the Messel pit
In 2003 the question arose how the Messel pit should present itself. In addition, there were numerous visitors and of course we wanted to meet their expectations. But a museum did not fit here, that was clear to everyone. So the state of Hesse drew up a plan and tried to find a new, suitable concept. The result is a meeting and exchange place between science and the public.
The visitor center offers a glimpse into the 48 million years of the earth’s history, which is opened to us by the Messel pit.
Here you will find all your questions answered and, in addition to information boards and exhibits, an elevator that takes you on a time travel into the depths – the elevator virtually drives into the borehole that has revived the past world for us. Here are some impressions from the Visitor Center at Messel Pit:
Of course you can see all this with your own eyes. Guided tours take place regularly, but must be booked online on the website of Grube Messel: Guided tours in Messel colliery.
The tours are usually done on foot and last from 1.5 hours. You should definitely bring sturdy shoes and, depending on the weather, sun protection. The pit is a veritable cauldron where the sun just burns. As half Sicilian, I felt at home there. But the normal Central European does not cope with the heat and the blazing sun so well. A cap, sunscreen, and possibly long clothes to protect yourself are advisable.
Some tours also include a guided tour of the Visitor Center. Otherwise, you can also book a ticket (with or without a guide) for the Visitor Center: Tickets Messel Pit.
If you just want to have a look, you can also just go to the viewing platform on the southern slope. It is freely accessible and you do not need a ticket to have a look into the pit from there.
Other excursion destinations in the vicinity
A visit to the Messel pit can be combined with a wonderful hike to the Kranichstein hunting lodge. The circular trail has a length of 16 kilometers and even if the Messel Pit is not on the way, it is only a small detour. I did the round for you and you can download the GPX data of my tour at Komoot here: Kranichsteiner forest path in modified form.
If you like hiking and want to explore other regions, I can recommend to visit the Pfälzerwald, the Spessart or the Taunus. Blogposts will follow for these regions. So far I can only refer you to my blog post about Staufen im Taunus outside the Odenwald.
If you want to make a city trip in this part of Germany, I recommend the following cities:
- Aschaffenburg: Aschaffenburg is called the gate to the Spessart. Besides the (partly very photogenic) sights like the Aschaffenburg Castle, which the city itself has to offer, you can also reach the forest quickly from here and can let off steam on many hiking trails.
- Heidelberg: Heidelberg is located directly on the Neckar and offers a picturesque backdrop with the river, the old town, and the castle on the mountain. Here you will also find the ideal mixture of city and countryside.
- Lohr am Main: Lohr am Main was first mentioned in a document in 1295 and is generally known as Snow White town. It is not documented that the girl who was to be killed because of her beauty was Lohr, but it is quite possible. The Brothers Grimm lived not far from Aschaffenburg, in Hanau, and on their way towards Bremen they also passed by in the Spessart, so they might have been inspired by the city of Lohr.
- Mannheim: The square city is worth a visit at any time. Whether inside or outside, there is always something to do or experience here.
- Michelstadt: The historical old town with the famous town hall and the half-timbered houses is simply enchanting. My tip: Take a photo tour to the sunrise when you have the cobblestone streets all to yourself! Near Michelstadt there are a lot of hiking trails, so that you won’t get bored.
- Miltenberg: The small town in Lower Franconia is located between Odenwald and Spessart and is a real gem. The old town is picturesque and even the starting point of several hiking trails. The Mildenburg and the Museum of the City of Miltenberg offers the culturally interested among us the opportunity to quench their thirst for knowledge.
On my tours I am mainly on the road with clothes and equipment from Decathlon*. My hiking boots for example are these: Waterproof half-height hiking boots*. In general, if you are a regular hiker or outdoor enthusiast, I recommend that you get some appropriate clothing and shoes. In case of emergency, normal sneakers will do as long as they give you a good grip and you can handle them if they get dirty. On hikes like the one in the Margarethen Gorge, this can happen faster than you can look.
I would also recommend protection for your cell phone. I got a nice scratch when I was walking in the Margarethenschlucht gorge. Even though my cell phone didn’t fall down or bump into anything. At least not consciously. Therefore I have now provided with an outdoor case: Outdoor Case iPhone*.
By the way, I take my pictures with a Sony Alpha 6500*. I usually switch between my two favourite lenses: a 10-18mm wide-angle lens* and a 30mm fixed focal length*. In case you’ve ever wondered how I take pictures of myself even though I’m often on the road alone: I have a Rollei tripod*.
The Messel Pit is an exciting place for all those who want to embark on a journey through the history of the earth. I admit, the subject is not always tangible and many things are hard to imagine. Be it from the technical and scientific side or simply in the imagination of such a completely different person in a time before Homo Sapiens. My imagination was put to the test in every case.
Nevertheless, the visit to the Messel pit was a unique experience for me. Of course, there is nowhere else in the world like it!
Have you ever been to the Messel pit? Tell me about it in the comments!
Did you like this blog post?
Share it in your social networks!
Subscribe to my newsletter so I can keep you posted about my life of travels and as a digital nomad! You will never miss a new blog post, a new ebook or where my next adventure is going to bring us. Because it’s never going to be boring!