Messel Pit fossil site, Germany


Messel Pit Fossil site (8°46'E, 49°55'N) is a World Heritage Site located in the northern foothills of the Odenwalk in Germany.

Geographical Location

Located in the northern foothills of the Odenwalk, south of Frankfurt am Main, near the city of Darmstadt, Commune of Messel, County of Darmstadt-Dieburg, Darmstadt Administrative District, Land Hesse. Messel Pit is bounded by a railway line to the north, and industrial and commercial estates to the south and west. On the east, forestry land adjoins the pit and plans envisage the establishment of a residual refuse dump on this land, about 170 meters (m) away from the pit. 8°46'E, 49°55'N.

Date and History of Establishment

  • The Messel site was actively mined from 1859 to 1971.
  • During 1971 to 1991, the governing bodies proposed to fill the Messel Pit with refuse. In 1991, the Hessian government purchased the site to secure long-term scientific access.
  • On 14 June 1991, the fossil deposit at Messel was designated a cultural monument under the Hessian Heritage Protection Act of 1 October 1974 (revised by an Amendment Act of 5 September 1986).
  • The site is also a public monument by the Agreement of 26 June 1992 on the Conduct of Palaeontological Excavations in Messel Pit with the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research; and the Agreement of 17 December 1992 on the Scientific and Cultural Use of the Messel Pit Fossil Site with the Society for the Preservation of the Messel Pit Fossil Site.
  • The oil shale in the pit is a historical mineral resource, which makes it part of the cultural heritage as defined in the Heritage Protection Act (Denkmalschutzgesetz) of Land Hesse.
  • Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1995.


70 hectares (ha).

Land Tenure

Messel Pit is the property of Land Hesse and is therefore publicly owned.


Approximately 200 m above MSL with the former open cast pit reaching a maximum depth of 60 m below ground level. The oil shale and its accompanying sediments extend to a depth of some 120 mto 130 m below the pit floor.

Physical Features

Messel Pit is approximately 1,000 m long (north to south) and 700 m wide (east to west). The site constitutes the sediment remains of an ancient lake bed lying on deposits of 270 to 290 million year Old Red Sandstone, with crystalline magmatic primary rocks emerging under some sediments. The Eocene period basin (50-60 million years ago, Tertiary Epoch, Cainozoic Era) of the Messel formation had been hollowed out by faults in the earth's crust. The gradual subsidence of old sediments within the faults resulted in the formation of new sediments above them, and over time immense deposits accumulated. The oil-shale bed originally extended to a depth of 190 m. The subsidence of the deposits preserved them over the millions of years that followed, in contrast to the watercourses that once linked the basins and whose sediments have been entirely eroded. Outcrops of older seams from Eocene succession are found on the slopes of the pit. These are partly irregular because they have been distorted by landslides. Only part of the structure has remained stratigraphically intact where various strata appear in chronological sequence. Today parts of the pit slopes are afforested. In the eastern section of the pit there is a small lake.


The location of the Eocene Lake Messel lay 10° south of its present position. This accounts for the Eocene Lake Messel appearing to have had a tropical to subtropical climate.


caption Cupressacae, Germany. (Source: Manhattan College)

Over 31 types of plant fossils have been identified although most are taxonomically identified at the family level: club mosses Selaginellaceae, royal fern Osmundaceae, curly grass fern Schizaeaceae, cypress Cupressaceae, plum yew Cephalotaxaceae, and swamp cypress Taxodiaceae, and the walnut tree Junglandacea.


The first animal fossil remains discovered were that of a crocodile found in 1875. Subsequent excavations have led to the identification of 40 species including the marsupial opossum Peradectes sp. and Amphiperatherium sp. Other faunal specimens identified include: pangolin Eomanis waldi, Leptictidium nasutum, anteater Eurotamandua joresi, scaly-tailed hedgehog Pholidocerus hassiacus, Macrocranion tenerum, and Macrocranion tupaiodon. There were forty specimens of the primitive Messel horse Propalaeotherium parvulum whose skeleton measures approximately 50 centimeters (cm) in length. Odd-toed ungulate Hallensia matthesi, crocodile Diplocynodon sp., Kopidodon macrognathus, bat Archaeonycteris pollex, and a large rodent Ailuravus macrurus have also been identified.

Ancient ostriches Palaeotis weigelti, roller-like bird Coraciiformes, woodpecker Piciformes, Galliformes, Falconiformes, Plataleidae, Diatrymas, Messel rails Messelornis cristata, Juncitarsus merkeli, Aenigmavis sapaea, Palaeoglaux sp., and Aegialornis szarskii are included amongst identified bird specimens.

All species of fishes that occur in Messel are so-called Osteichthyes, where their skeleton is, at least in part, composed of true bone. These include ray-finned fish subclass Actinopterygii, "new-finned" fish Neopterygii, Messel garfish Atractosteus strausi, Messel bowfin Cyclurus ('Amia') kehreri, Archaic knife-fish Thaumaturus intermedius, Messel eel Anguilla ignota, high-backed predatory Messel perch Amphiperca multiformes, and double-finned Messel perch Palaeoperca proxima.

Insects are the most numerous invertebrates found at the site, with several specimens having very well preserved structure and metallic colorings. The most frequent finds are beetles that include click beetles Elateridae (15.8%), weevil Curculionidae (12.8%), jewel beetles Buprestidae (8.4%), dung beetles Scarabaeidae (3.9%), stag beetles Lucanidae (1.7%), ground beetles Carabidae (1.4%), water beetles Dascillidae (1.4%), longhorn beetles Cerambycidae (0.5%), and rove beetles Staphylinidae (0.26%).

Cultural Heritage

Not applicable.

Local Human Population

Not applicable.

Visitor and Visitor Facilities

The Cultural Advisory Council manages the public presentation of the site and provides guided tours. It is planned to construct a viewing platform at the edge of the pit with information displays to explain to visitors the significance of the site. For technical reasons, it is not possible to site a permanent museum-type exhibition in the immediate vicinity of Messel Pit, as it is incapable of receiving traffic on a large scale. However, three museums in the region the Hessian Regional Museum in Darmstadt, the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt am Main, and the Messel Museum of Fossils and Local History, provide permanent exhibits and information on the Messel site discoveries.

Scientific Research and Facilities

Although first sample was identified in 1875, the first formal agreement was drawn up between the Regional Museum in Darmstadt and the mining company to cover salvage finds in 1912. Formal excavations started in 1919. Systematic excavations took place in 1966, 1971, and thereafter on an occasional basis until the end of 1974. Since that time a number of scientific research projects have been initiated.

Excavations are kept within the framework prescribed for archaeological properties by Article 5 of the Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage (1989). The Senckenberg Society of Natural History and the Senckenberg Research Institute have used their own funds to purchase a building close to the Messel Pit to serve as a field research station.

During 1974, the frequency of fossil finds increased and the high prices paid for rare finds lead to invasion of the pit by private excavators and fossil merchants. By 1975, under the threat of the refuse dump, the Senckenberg Natural History Museum and Research Museum was granted permission to join the Hessian Regional Museum in excavating and salvaging finds. Following this development other institutions gradually obtained permission to excavate: Natural History Museum Dortmund (1975); University of Hamburg, Institute for Geology and Palaeontology (1975); Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz (1976); Regional Natural History Collection, Karlsruhe (1979); Royal Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium, Brussels (1983); and the University of Tubingen, Institute for Geology and Palaeontology (1987).

In 1991, the second International Messel Symposium was held at the Hessian Regional Museum, Darmstadt with over 100 participants from 21 countries to report on research and findings.

Conservation Value

The remains of flora and fauna from the middle Eocene strata are preserved in the Messel Pit fossil site. The site is considered unique in type and quality of preservation, quantity, and diversity of fossils. The site has provided thousands of fossil specimens which has resulted in over 40 species being identified thus far, and the documentation of the palaeoecolgical environment. The fossils consist of large carnivores, fish, birds, insects, vascular plants, bacteria and organic molecular structures. Two percent of the entire fauna are vertebrates, ganoid-scaled and bony fishes being the most common group. The Messel site is renowned for its "soft-part" imprintations of the most delicate organic structures, such as hair and feathers have been preserved. There are often completeskeletons with the contours of soft parts and stomach contents in the case of vertebrates, and well-preserved coloring and stomach contents in the case of insects. Complex chemical compounds found in the oil shale have been preserved unaltered in the rock as "chemical fossils". These provide many clues for research concerning palaeontological and palaeoecological methods, and enable palaeobiological processes to be reconstructed.

Conservation Management

Responsibility for the care, preservation, and operation of the site was assigned to the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research on 1 July 1992. Under German mining law (unspecified), the Society is the operator of the Messel Pit. The site has been divided into five "geoscientific priority areas" to ensure that scientific excavations are kept within reasonable limits and that particular care is taken with the more valuable strata. The categories are determined by two inter-related factors, namely the available quantity of a deposit and its accessibility. Category I (within stratified oil shale) are excavations permissible only within much stricter limits than apply to Category II; Category II (within the stratified oil shale) scientific excavations safely carried out on condition that disturbance of the property is minimized; Category III (non-stratified Eocene succession) scientific excavations are to be preceded by probes on the basis of which rock may be assigned to Category I or II; Category IV (non-stratified Eocene succession) covered by other layers and therefore inaccessible; and Category V (outside the Eocene succession) no research value and no purpose served by scientific excavation.

A perimeter fence has been erected around Messel Pit to prevent trespassing. The site and perimeter are kept under surveillance by foot patrols to prevent trespassing. A measurement system has been established for the pit and surrounding area to monitor the stability of the slopes. In addition, groundwater and rainwater that gathers on the pit floor is pumped away in order to stabilize the slopes of the pit. All activities are discussed by experts and other interested parties of the Cultural Advisory Council for Messel Pit, and the Scientific Advisory Council for Messel Pit.

On the instructions of the Hessian Ministry of Science and Arts, a basic operational plan is being drawn up in order to establish permanent statutory safeguards for palaeontological research. The plan aims to set forth all necessary future operational measures, including re-vegetating the site. The management plan was due at the end of 1994.

Institutions conducting palaeontological, palaeoecological and palaeobiological research at the site include: Natural History Museum Dortmund; University of Hamburg, Institute for Geology and Palaeontology; Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz; Regional Natural History Collection, Karlsruhe; Royal Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels; University of Tubingen, Institute for Geology and Palaeontology.

The Senckenberg Research Institute engages individual engineering or planning agencies to carry out the specific work required for preservation and maintenance of the site.

Management Constraints

The site has been significantly degraded from mining and there has been considerable controversy over the importance of the fossil resources and protection of the site. Messel Pit lies in the highly urbanized Frankfurt am Main area, a densely populated region. On the east, forestry land adjoins the pit and it is planned to establish a refuse dump on this land, about 170 m from the pit.


There are six full-time positions at the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research.


2.8 million Deutschmarks per annum (US$ 1.9 million) plus financial support from the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History and the Senckenberg Research Institute.

IUCN Management Category

  • Not applicable
  • Natural World Heritage Site - Criterion i

Further Reading

  • Callot, H.J., Ocambo, R., Albrecht, P., Hayes, J.M., and Takigiku, R. 1988. Porphyrins from Messel Shale. New Answers to an Old Problem. Cour. Forsch.-Inst. Senckenberg, Vol. 107, pp 73-78, Darmstadt. (Unseen)
  • Franzen, J., Haubold, H.and Storch, G., 1993. Relationships of the Mammalian Faunas from Messel and the Geiseltal. - Kaupia Darmst. Beitr. zur Naturgesch., vol. 3, pp 145-149, Darmstadt. (Unseen)
  • Habersetzer, J. and Storch, G. 1987. Ecology and Echolocations of the Eocene Messel bats. In: Hanak, V., Horacek, I., and Gaisler, J. (Eds) European Bat Research, Charles University Press, pp. 213-233, Prague. (Unseen)
  • Habersetzer, J. and Storch, G. (1993) Radiographic Studies of the Cochlea in Extant Chiroptera and Microchiropterans from Messel. Kaupia Darmst. Beitr. zur Naturgesch, Vol 3, pp 97-105. (Unseen)
  • Halstead, B. 1985. The Treasures of Messel - An Open letter to the Prime Minister of Hesse State, Germany, Modern Geology, Vol 9, pp.1-3. (Unseen)
  • Hoch, E. 1988. On the Ecological Role of an Eocene Bird from Messel, West Germany. Cour. Forsch. Inst. Senckenberg, Vol 107 249-261, Frankfurt a.M. (Unseen)
  • Laemmert, A., 1993. Dorsal and Ventral Armous and Various Positions of Embedding in Diplocynodono (Crocodilia) - Kaupia Darmst. Beitr. zur Naturgesch, Vol 3, pp 35-40, Darmstadt. (Unseen)
  • Mayer, E., 1994. Nomination of Messel Pit for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List, Hessian Minister of State for Science and Arts, Messel.
  • Schaal, S. and Ziegler, W. 1992. Messel - An insight into the history of life and the Earth, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK. Bib + 322pp. ISBN: 0198546548.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Messel Pit fossil site, Germany. Retrieved from


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