Uncovering Ida

Fossils from Messel Pit are prepared in a unique way to preserve them before scientists study them.

When Jørn Hurum was shown a photograph of Ida by a dealer at a fossil fair in Hamburg, he immediately knew she was from the Messel Pit. The clues lay not only in Ida's remarkable preservation, but the unique artificial matrix in which she was held. Messel fossils require a special method of preparation due to the high water content of the Messel Pit oil shale. Oil shale dries out quickly when it comes into contact with air, causing it to break and crumble, damaging the fossil. To minimize the damage, Messel fossils are stabilized with epoxy and encased in resin.

STEP 1: The oil shale is carefully removed on one side of the fossil, using a preparation needle or scalpel.

STEP 2: A 2-3 cm tall clay frame is built around the fossil. The oilshale is kept moist by wrapping it in a plastic wrap, whilst the fossil is dried, possibly with a hairdryer until the bone substance becomes lighter in colour. The plastic wrap is removed and epoxy resin is poured in to a maximum depth of 1 cm.

STEP 3: The exopy resin is left to dry for approximately 12 hours.

STEP 4: When the resin is dry, the slab is turned over.

STEP 5: The oil shale is carefully removed from the underside. Ida's preparation is so skilful, it probably took months to carefully chip away the shale and stabilize her bones.

STEP 6: Finally, the fossil lies in relief in the new artificial matrix.