There are a couple of common misconceptions that need to be cleared up regarding the La Brea Tar Pits (also known as Rancho La Brea) in Los Angeles, California. First, they are not tar pits.
As a guide from the Page Museum in Hancock Park, where the La Brea Tar Pits that aren’t tar pits are located, explained, tar is not a natural substance. According to the dictionary bundled with my MacBook computer, tar is, “a dark, thick, flammable liquid distilled from wood or coal, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons, resins, alcohols, and other compounds.”
The substance that is in Hancock Park (or, rather, beneath Hancock except when there is seepage or the substance is dug up) is asphalt, which can be found naturally. One of the definitions of asphalt in the same dictionary is, “the bituminous pitch used in making asphalt, sometimes found in natural deposits but usually made by the distillation of crude oil.” The asphalt found in Hancock Park is the natural kind.
This misconception about the substance in the area has been around for a long time. Rancho La Brea got its name from the Spanish word for tar, brea.
The second misconception is that the specimens dug up at the so-called tar pits are dinosaur fossils. They are not. Not even close. They’re from animals that roamed the area during the last Ice Age.
The Page Museum, which is also in Hancock Park, was built to display some of the fossil finds from the area. Those fossils are from animals that lived 10- to 40-thousand years ago. At that point, the non-avian dinosaurs had already been extinct for 65-million years or so. I’ll have more to say on the Page Museum a couple of paragraphs on.
The dominant feature when you enter Hancock Park off Wilshire Boulevard is a black lagoon that formed in a pit where asphalt had been mined. You likely won’t have to stay for long to see some bubble action in the pit. The bubbles are a combination of natural gas and hydrogen sulphide, which is something that you’ll often find in a hydrocarbon deposit, which is fitting because the area is on top of an oil field.
On one side of this pond you’ll see some sculptures of Ice Age animals. They’re cute and representative of the fossil finds, but the sculptures reminded me more of a Disney production than of something particularly serious.
There are still ongoing paleontological excavations going on within the park. That is to say, they were ongoing until 2008, when the excavations went on hiatus while the researchers worked on Project 23—something they were still doing during my visit in November 2013.
Project 23 began when a bulldozer digging out a new underground parking garage for the next-door Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) sheered off the head of a largely complete adult mammoth. With that discovery, construction stopped while the Page Museum built 23 large boxes (hence the name Project 23) to contain sections of the earth to be removed for the garage.
These large cubic sections were then taken to a site in Hancock Park where they waited until they could be carefully searched for additional fossils.
Despite work in the pits having stopped because of Project 23, you can view Pit 91 as it was when work stopped. Pit 91 was the active exploration site until work began on Project 23. Work is planned to resume there when Project 23 is complete. (There is also another observation pit, but it was closed when I was there.)
Inside the Page Museum, in addition to a couple of short informative videos that play on a continuous loop, you’ll find a number of specimens found at the various excavations at the La Brea Tar Pits, including the mammoth that led to the commencement of Project 23.
There is also a wall on which is mounted shelves holding the skulls of more than 400 dire wolf skulls. That many skulls on an orange-backed, attractively lit exhibit makes for an artistic display. Take a look at the accompanying picture and see if you don’t agree.
Not all of the research work done by the Page Museum’s palaeontologists is carried on behind closed doors in hidden laboratories or excavated pits. Some takes place in the “fishbowl lab” off to one side of the museum.
The name fishbowl has nothing to do with fish. It is called that because the lab is glass-walled. The palaeontologists and volunteers inside are visible as they work at sifting through the earth brought in from the field (currently from Project 23) to search for and clean fossils and microfossils.
At the center of the museum is a glass-roofed atrium filled with lush vegetation. The vegetation has nothing to do with the Ice Age focus of the museum, but it is a beautiful spot for quiet contemplation.