How the La Brea Tar Pits Work

Project 23

Assistant lab supervisor Trevor Valle works on Zed, removing a plaster cast from one of his tusks.
Assistant lab supervisor Trevor Valle works on Zed, removing a plaster cast from one of his tusks.
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In 2006, Project 23 began with all the glamour of a parking deck. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) intended to construct a new underground parking garage on land adjacent to the tar pits, but being such a historically important area, that sort of work couldn't take place without a salvage archaeologist. And that was a good thing, too, because during the course of construction, 16 deposits chock full of artifacts were unearthed.

Not wanting to unduly delay construction (it would have taken an estimated 20 years onsite to thoroughly dig through all the deposits, and the people at the LACMA weren't thrilled at the idea of that long a wait), salvage archaeologist Robin Turner engineered a solution. Three-and-a-half months later, 23 wooden crates containing the deposits were hauled out of the earth with cranes and delivered to the Page Museum intact. Heavily wrapped in plastic and weighing up to about 125,000 pounds (55,000 kilograms), the boxed deposits were transported to the Page museum's main research facility -- nicknamed the "fish bowl" -- where the public can watch through glass walls as researchers carefully sift through them.

Probably the most exciting find of the project so far is "Zed," an 80 percent complete Colombian mammoth with tusks. Back when most of the mammoths at the tar pits were discovered, their bones were just mixed together and later put back together at random; the process was sort of like jumbling up the pieces of 30 different jigsaw puzzles and then assembling them back together without regard for which originated from which box. Now curators can delve deeper into the life of a Pleistocene mammoth than they ever have before. Microfossils abound in the matrix encasing Zed's fossils, analogous of just how many mysteries are still waiting to be unraveled at one of Pleistocene Epoch's most enigmatic legacies, the La Brea Tar Pits.

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  • Griffith, Shirley. "La Brea Tar Pits: Where Animals Lived, and Died, Thousands of Years Ago." Voice of America. Oct. 2, 1007. (Feb. 24, 2011)
  • La Brea Tar Pits Web site. (Feb. 24, 2011)
  • Kielbasa, John R. "Historic Adobes of Los Angeles County." Dorrace Publishing Company. 1998. (Feb. 24, 2011)
  • Maugh II, Thomas H. "Major cache of fossils unearthed in L.A." The Los Angeles Times. Feb. 18, 2009. (Feb. 24, 2011)
  • Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Web site. (Feb. 24, 2011)
  • Oliver, Myrna. "George C. Page; Philanthropist Founded La Brea Museum." Los Angeles Times. Nov. 30, 2000. (Feb. 24, 2011)