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BLACK HISTORY GET IN ON THE TAR PITS ACTION.

Byline: Sandra Barrera Staff Writer

Fourteen feet down Pit 91 -- a fossil deposit at the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits -- Elissa Wall, a 39-year-old volunteer excavator from Winnetka, clears away gloppy black sediment from a knot of saber-tooth cat bones that poke through the molasses ground.

``I've had a love of paleontology since I was a little girl,'' says Wall. ``So to know that you're the first person to put your hands on something that's been here for 30,000 years -- I'm living a childhood dream.''

Yes, it's excavation season at the La Brea Tar Pits. From now through Sept. 4, Pit 91 -- the world's only urban Ice Age paleontological dig -- will bustle with activity as the remains of fossilized bones, plants and insects trapped in the sticky ground as long as 40,000 years ago are unearthed.

Visitors can watch the action slowly unfold from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at an observation station at the ledge of the quarry. From there, they can head over to the museum to view the collection.

The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits opened in 1977, but digging has been going on at the site since the early 20th century. Major excavation took place between 1913 and 1915.

At the time, only large fossils -- camels, ground sloths, lions, camels, condors -- were recovered. The smaller finds went unnoticed.

Not these days. Volunteer Jean Moore, a retired anatomist who likens excavating Pit 91 to journeying back in time, hands a hooked object that she just uncovered to geologist Kristen Vowels, who then records the finding in a log book.

Turns out it's a dog claw.

``That's what I love about this -- it's so real,'' Moore says, turning her attention back to the fossils that protrude from the muck below. ``Those were animals galloping around here.''

The claw will be sent over to the museum lab, where, from behind a glass wall, visitors can watch technicians clean, identify and reassemble fossils. Nothing is ever discarded.

Shelley Cox, the lab supervisor, holds up tubs of tiny snail shells, beetle exoskeletons, twigs and bones. These fossils were sifted from the silt and sand that packed the nasal and brain cavities of Max, a brown saber-tooth cat skull that excavators discovered last summer.

``We are not dependent on what they dig up each year,'' Cox says. ``We've got plenty to keep us busy. But if they find something cool, it gets bumped.''

Max got bumped. Unlike other saber-tooth cat skulls -- the most commonly found animal remains second to those of dire wolves, he was found with a complete set of jaws. The bones of the lower jaw were pressed up against his palate.

Bones can tell paleontologists a lot about an animal, no doubt. But Cox especially marvels at the fossilized remains that show an animal had survived a debilitating injury.

That is, until it stepped into the pit.

It would have taken less than 3 inches of asphalt to trap an animal the size of a horse, particularly during warmer weather when the asphalt is sticky. Animals would get stuck, attracting the attention of hungry carnivorous birds and mammals, some of which would in turn get trapped.

The cycle would repeat for the next 30,000 years.

``This is the richest ice age fossil site in the world,'' Harris says.

Last summer's excavation alone turned up more than 1,000 specimens, including bison, turtles and seeds, which have helped researchers create three different ecological settings on the grounds of Hancock Park. And it's ongoing.

Excavators have another 5 to 8 feet to go before they exhaust Pit 91.

That could take 20 years.

But paleontologists are in no hurry.

``They've been there for 30,000 years,'' says John Harris, the museum's chief curator. ``What's another year or two?''

Sandra Barrera, (818) 713-3728

sandra.barrera(at)dailynews.com

THE GEORGE C. PAGE MUSEUM AT THE LA BREA TAR PITS

Where: 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays.

Admission: $7 adults; $4.50 seniors, students with ID and teens ages 13 to 17; $2 children ages 5 to 12. Entrance to the observation station at Pit 91 is free 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday though Sunday, through Sept. 4. (323) 934-7243.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Staff excavator Kristen Vowels, above, displays a tar-encrusted claw that was found in Pit 91 at the La Brea Tar Pits. At left, staff and volunteer excavators work to remove animal bones from Pit 91.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 17, 2006
Words:782
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