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World famous La Brea Tar Pits offer new experiences; Observation Pit reopens
Inside Pit 91, excavator Sean Campbell creates a grid across the matrix to help paleontologists track where each bone is found. Photo by David Lauridsen, courtesy of NHM.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- On June 28, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits debuts a suite of improvements to the visitor experience, including two natural and cultural treasures that will be reactivated to spotlight the intensely site-specific legacy of the world-famous Ice Age site and its history of discovery, excavation, research, and display. The mid-century Observation Pit designed by Henry Sims Bent (1952), the first museum in Hancock Park, will be reopened for special tours after several decades of closure. A trip inside the Observation Pit is part of the new “Excavator Tour,” free with museum admission if purchased online at Simultaneously, excavations inside Pit 91—one of the world’s longest running urban paleontological excavation sites—will recommence following a seven-year hiatus due to Project 23 investigations. In addition to these openings, the iconic mammoths and mastodon surrounding the Lake Pit have been renovated, the Ice Age frieze crowning the top of the Page Museum building has been restored, and daily programming and interaction with scientists has been expanded inside the Page Museum.

“We are delighted to offer new daily tours inside the Observation Pit. The post-war gem was designed to engage visitors in the discovery of Ice Age fossils by allowing them to descend into an excavation pit. It was an important first step in the development of the park,” said Dr. Jane Pisano, President and Director of NHM. “Visitors have long been drawn to the tar pits, and allowing them to get close to fossils and paleontology became a theme. That’s key to our reactivation of Pit 91 as well. It allows us to share with visitors the excitement of the discovery process.”

The summer activities are part of a first phase to connect visitors with the indoor and outdoor experience of the La Brea Tar Pits and its Page Museum, and to create greater awareness and support for the ongoing research focused on the tar pits. New findings, appearing in recent journals, range from what insect-damaged La Brea fossils reveal about climate change and the Ice Age, to what damaged skeletons of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats (two of La Brea’s prominent predators) reveal about their hunting modes, to new radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis of fossils from the ongoing excavation at Project 23.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the 3rd District where the Page Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits are located, said “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.”

The Observation Pit
On the western edge of the La Brea Tar Pits campus sits the Observation Pit, a circular building and the first visitor experience in Hancock Park, pre-dating both the Page Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After early plans for the park were derailed by the second world war and the Great Depression, a post-WWII master plan for the development of Hancock Park as a scientific landmark was approved by the County. It called for an observation pit over an existing fossil deposit—the catalyst being Chester Stock, a paleontologist who led excavations in the park and conceived of a fossil museum onsite. Stock had drilled test holes in the area in 1948, looking for a good deposit around which he could build an observation station and museum.

The Observation Pit took further shape when Harry Sims Bent, the Pasadena architect whose work includes the L.A. County Arboretum, Honolulu Academy of Arts, and Ala Moana Beach Park, created a curved observation pathway leading towards the base of the pit. The original design featured circular openings in the ceiling and an open upper section of the south-facing wall for outside viewing into the pit. The circular openings were later affixed with skylights and the open window with didactics to prevent vandalism to the site. Although a staged presentation, the Observation Pit contains real bones, including those of saber-toothed cats, ground sloths, and dire wolves. The Observation Pit was the only fossil museum at the La Brea Tar Pits until the opening of the George C. Page Museum in 1977. It was closed in the early 1990s, as programming and tours unfolded inside the museum, and the emphasis turned to the real-time discoveries.

Pit 91
Early investigations at the La Brea Tar Pits concentrated efforts on recovering the largest and most spectacular fossils. To correct this bias and develop a more balanced picture of life during the late Pleistocene, scientists carried out an intensive excavation of the Pit 91 quarry from 1969 to 2007, an effort that doubled the number of species known from the tar pits. Many of the smaller sorts of Rancho La Brea fossils—seeds, insects and mollusks, fish, amphibians, and small birds and rodents—are best known from this excavation. In all, some 160 species of plants and more than 125 species of invertebrates and 230 species of vertebrates are now known from the Rancho La Brea deposits. About half of them are known only from Pit 91.

The 1969 opening included a public component: an observation deck to connect visitors with on-site excavations. Pit 91 was the one of the world’s only continuously active urban excavation sites until its hiatus began in 2007 due to the demands of Project 23—the 23 fossil blocks extracted from the ground during the construction of the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art parking lot. This year, in an effort to activate an indoor-outdoor circuit (through the park and into the museum), Pit 91 will be re-staffed with excavators once again for the summer season.

La Brea Tar Pits, Science and Discovery
The specimens that have been excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits—fossilized bones of terrestrial animals such as the saber-toothed cat, and a wide variety of invertebrate and plant fossils—comprise one of the world’s largest and most diverse bodies of evidence about life during the Ice Age. These materials are so important to science that researchers refer to the late Pleistocene of North America (approximately 240,000 to 11,000 years before the present) as the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age.

In 1913, after many discoveries from the Tar Pits had been taken out of Los Angeles and scattered, the owner of Rancho La Brea, G. Allan Hancock, gave the newly established Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) the exclusive right to excavate for two years. The 1913-15 dig yielded more than 750,000 specimens from 96 sites. The Hancock family subsequently donated the fossils and 23 acres of Rancho La Brea (now Hancock Park) to the County of Los Angeles.

Early investigators understandably concentrated their efforts on recovering the largest and most spectacular fossils. To correct this bias and develop a more balanced picture of life during the late Pleistocene, scientists carried out an intensive excavation of the Pit 91 quarry from 1969 to 2007, an effort that nearly doubled the Page Museum’s collection of fossils, most of which are 11,000 to 40,000 years old.

The next huge influx of fossils came with Project 23, which will again almost double the Page Museum’s collections. Although large fossils such as the Columbian mammoth Zed continue to inspire wonder, much of the emphasis of current research has shifted toward microfossils: well-preserved insect remains and leaf mats, for example, or the thousands of tiny fossilized organisms that are found in between the intertwined bones. Scientists have found these materials invaluable for purposes such as reconstructing the ecology of the Pleistocene and studying its climatic conditions. This knowledge is of crucial interest in itself and also helps to inform scientists’ understanding of current climate change.

“Research during the past century has taught us how important this site is for understanding the climate-induced changes that took place during the past 50,000 years. 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 Dr. John Harris, Chief Curator at the Page Museum. “The most important task for us today is to ensure this locality is preserved for future scientific discoveries in the centuries to come.”

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