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A Tour of Geological Spacetime

Philip Morrison

Garbage or Treasure?

Other such special storehouses exist. The Messel Pit, near Darmstadt, sits amid a coal-veined wetland not very far from the Solenhofen lithographic source. The Messel site became a much-worked mine for oily black shale, then a large refuse pit. But the value of its fossil mammal collection far outweighs its worth as a dump. A parade of ancient horses from Messel, for example, makes very clear that fifty million years ago the time for mammals had come.

Another treasure of ancient life is in Rhynie, a rolling rural district in the Scottish Highlands, not far from Aberdeen. Rocky outcrops offering delicate plant fossils are widespread over that grassy landscape. Trapped within the chert, a vast array of Devonian plants are preserved in large numbers, appropriate companions to the living carpet covering the site today.

Whereas impeccable Gucci crafts stud the mercantile constellations, our star list offers instead the old Italian city of Gubbio in the Appenines. There posted on a main road are signs leading the interested visitor to a layered rock wall. You can put your finger carefully at the clay-filled centimeter or so between the latest of the chalky Cretaceous strata and the earliest of the Tertiary, when little mammals first found their way open to fortune. After the brief moment in geological history when this strip was laid down, no dinosaurs remained.

These aren't the only gems. The jewels of Earth history are littered everywhere and are easily found. Look for layered canyons or fresh-faced highway roadcuts. Seek craggy spires from Patagonia to the Alps, or wide flatlands where an uncertain river zigzags its lost way to the sea. Treasures await the curious, and any modest atlas will offer clues.

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