Why, with a collection of more than 3.5 million fossils, do we keep digging? Don't we have enough fossils? Do we really expect to find anything new?
What Is Project 23?
In 2006, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) began work on a new underground parking garage. During the course of construction, 16 new fossil deposits were discovered, including the semi-articulated, largely complete skeleton of an adult mammoth. How could we get out of the way of the bulldozers but save the fossils? We built large wooden boxes around each deposit, 23 in all. The boxes were moved to their present location immediately north of the Pit 91 complex, and excavation began on "Project 23." In addition to the boxes, there were 327 buckets of fossil material recovered from the LACMA salvage site for paleontologists to clean and sort through. It's going to keep us busy for years!
Science in the Heart of L.A.
Excavation at Rancho La Brea has continued, off and on, since 1913. Many of our excavation techniques have remained the same as back then: Bones are excavated using small hand tools, field data is recorded with pen and paper, and excavators still do their own shoring. Even our measurement system has its roots in the grid system laid out by excavators in 1913. There is some new technology, of course — electric lamps warm and soften the particularly dense asphalt of Project 23, digital cameras document day-to-day changes quickly and cheaply, and computerized databases allow us to search through collections with ease — but we doubt anything will ever replace hand tools, pen, paper, and elbow grease.
Discoveries Made Daily
We find something new every week, if not every day. Not a new species necessarily, but things like a new and uniquely laid out deposit of fossils, or new information on the geology of the deposit. Mini-discoveries like these help color our continually evolving picture of the Pleistocene in Los Angeles. Now, new species are difficult to come by, but with Project 23, we have sheer volume on our side. With the amount of fossiliferous dirt we have to dig through, we'd be surprised if we didn't discover a new type of animal. Research demands more data! Databases demand more data entry! And basic human curiosity demands that we slowly, steadily, someday reach the bottom of our inverted Everest.