News Column

Long hidden Observation Pit reopens at La Brea Tar Pits

June 29, 2014

By Dana Bartholomew, Daily News, Los Angeles



June 29--Jennifer Pawlik stared down Saturday into a blob of black bones at the bottom of a deep pit, the toothy jaw of a Columbian mammoth leering up from an oily pool.

Not for two decades had any visitor to the George C. Page Museum seen the pile of ancient remains inside the Observation Pit on the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits.

"Very cool," said Pawlik, 41, a teacher from Chandler, Ariz., leaning with her husband, Jason, over a railing corkscrewing to the bottom of the 30-foot wide pit. "It's just so fascinating to ... get a sense of how the scientists see it before it's cleaned up. It's really exciting."

Thus began the launch of newly refurbished exhibits at the La Brea Tar Pits, one of Los Angeles' oldest and most world-renowned sites, where an Ice Age wonder of black fossil gumbo burbles in the shadow of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

After years of being hidden from public view, the historic Observation Pit, in addition to the celebrated Pit 91, has reopened. Pit 91 closed for seven years for other excavations of saber-toothed cats and other long vanished Hollywood hipsters.

The museum has also restored its Ice Age frieze depicting the range of animals once trapped in La Brea's oily pits, including the iconic mastodon and mammoths that trumpet terror on the edge of Wilshire Boulevard.

Public programs and interaction with scientists have also been expanded at the 23-acre Hancock Park.

"We're very excited to be announcing these new opportunities throughout the park to reintroduce visitors to the uniqueness of the La Brea Tar Pits, and its cultural and scientific past, present and future," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, in a statement.

The visitors lined up 20-deep Saturday to take tours of the oily asphalt pits that preserved an ancient Los Angeles that once teemed with mastodons, sloths and camels and the dire wolves and sabre-toothed cats that once fed on them.

In the past century, La Brea scientists have recovered some 5.5 million animals invaluable to late Pleistocene research. More recent finds have focused on the much smaller birds, rodents and other minute species mostly from 10,000 to 40,000 years old.

"We have learned that it isn't just the large and iconic fossils that are important for research, and that there is no substitute for carefully planned, meticulous excavation," said John Harris, chief curator for the museum.

An inaugural tour led by Rocio Santoyo traipsed past the giant Lake Pit where methane still bubbles from its black fossil sludge.

Past Pit 91, source of half the critters recovered from the former Rancho La Brea where oilman G. Allan Hancock had made his fortune. Scientists are once again digging there throughout the summer.

The tour then stopped at the historic Observation Pit in a small building just east of the LACMA Levitated Mass. Opened in 1952, the domed pit served as the park's only staged exhibit of scientific discovery until the Page Museum opened in 1977. It closed two decades ago when the museum chose to focus on more current finds.

"The Observation Pit is not something usually open to the public," Santoyo, with a background in archeology and anthropology, told roughly 50 visitors. "But it's really a phenomenal pit with a historic background."

The museum's so-called Project 23, after 23 fossil blocks dug out of an art museum underground parking garage next door, was quietly being excavated next door.

"It was interesting," said Joanna Grimes, 74, of Pasadena, who hadn't seen the La Brea Tar Pits since she was 10, accompanied by her husband, Jack, and a 9-year-old niece from Texas. "I would recommend this to anybody, especially children old enough to comprehend.

"But it's a little rough on the old folks."

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Source: Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


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