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MID-WILSHIRE : Paleontologists Are Having a Field Day in Sticky Situation

August 14, 1994|JOHN BUZBEE

Saber-toothed cats, mammoths, camels and other beasts that had a bad day in the tar pits 30,000 years ago will at least have an audience this summer as the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opens the excavations at Pit 91 for public viewing.

Paleontologists and volunteers eager to pull the fossils out of their sticky graves had feared that fiscal problems affecting Los Angeles County would keep the dig closed this summer. But the county museum's nonprofit foundation came through with $7,000, and now the dig continues.

It's not the stuff of Indiana Jones. Visitors who step out on the observation deck can see bones sticking out of the sandy soil and can watch the workers peel tar-soaked sand off the fossils. The work is slow-going.

"We're very careful to dig up and record each position of each bone," said Chris Shaw, collections manager for the museum. "It's a long and tedious job."

Even so, there's no shortage of volunteers eager to help. Anyone at least 16 years old who puts in 96 hours volunteering in the lab can qualify to help with the dig, Shaw said. For those who just want a peek, the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day at 5801 Wilshire Blvd. Admission is $5 for adults, with discounts for seniors, students and children.

Pit 91, the only active dig in the museum, has always been popular with visitors, said Brett Henry, the public relations director for the county museum. Workers who started excavating the pits in 1913 left Pit 91 untouched, expecting that a museum would be built above it.

But the museum went elsewhere, and in 1969 paleontologists started work on Pit 91 full time. That came to an end in 1981, when Prop. 13 dried up museum funds. Eyeing the crowds of tourists coming to town for the Olympics, the museum reopened the dig in 1984 and ever since has kept it open for two months every summer.

It's not bad work, Shaw said. The paleontologists and volunteers can spend a day unearthing fossils of any and everything claimed by the tar, including mammoths, snails, birds--even plants.

And when they're done, they don't have to sleep in a tent in some desolate part of the world.

"We can go home and have a nice dinner," Shaw said. "We're spoiled here."

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