My, what big teeth you have: Volunteer Jack Schwellenbach holding the skull of 'Cletus', a sabre-toothed cat, which he is working on at the fossil lab of the Page Museum in the LaBrea Tar Pits. - Los Angeles Times/MCT photos
Volunteers get their hands dirty – and like it – at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits.
Every Thursday morning, Judith Sydner-Gordon puts on the same simple uniform: khaki cargo pants and an electric orange T-shirt with a sabre-toothed cat emblazoned across the front. Recently, she added an accessory, a miniature canine skull that dangles from a silver chain around her neck.
“Wolfie”, she calls him, after the dire wolf specimen she worked on last year.
Sydner-Gordon, a retired elementary school teacher, has spent five years picking through the remains of animals that died sometime during the last Ice Age. She is one of about 35 volunteers who dedicate one day a week to the largest urban excavation project in the world: the bony quarry of the La Brea Tar Pits.
On this empty weekday morning, the cries of a school tour float across La Brea’s immaculately manicured grounds. A few runners stop to stretch under the shade of leafy jacarandas while traffic roars down Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, hurtling past aeons of history.
Sydner-Gordon perches on an army-green cushion inside a big wooden crate. Its walls enclose a small mountain of solid rock – a fossil-ridden hunk hewn from the ground to make room for the parking garage at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She leans close to the tacky asphalt, expertly wielding a dental pick to disentangle a dainty bird bone from a frozen jumble of femurs, vertebrae and scapulas.
“We are the first humans to see this stuff after ... thousands of years,” she says.
Volunteers like Sydner-Gordon are an invaluable asset to the small staff operating out of the Page Museum, which houses and displays La Brea’s treasures. With their donated labour, the team has chiselled and scratched through 1.8m of rock that once towered above the pitted surface of Box 14, where Sydner-Gordon now works.
Reaching down to touch the stone, she says, “To have this here – literally, at your fingertips – is just amazing.”