Excavation 101 | La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

Excavation 101

Active Science

Ever wonder how paleontologists at the tar pits excavate the fossils? We'll take you on a behind-the-scenes paleo journey in this film.

Excavation Process Discover How We Excavate

1Jumble of Bones

We discover a fossil deposit. The bones from different animals are usually jumbled together. We rarely find whole skeletons.


We lay out a grid on the top of the deposit so that we can record where each of the bones comes from. We establish a datum point from which to measure the depth of the fossils.


We select tools according to the kind of dirt around the fossils. We use hammers and chisels on hard areas that lack fossils. We use dental picks when working near the fossils.


We carefully remove the dirt from around each fossil. This dirt (or matrix) is then stored for later processing as it often contains other tiny fossils that can only be detected in the Lab.

5Measuring Fossils

We measure the position and orientation of each fossil before removing it from the grid. This will help us understand how the deposit was formed.

6Recording data

We take photographs and record all measurements for each fossil in a field notebook. A copy of this field information accompanies the fossil when it is sent to the Page Museum for cleaning and curation.

And Don't Miss

La Brea Tar Pits Museum Tour

Come inside and see how we work on the fossils that we dig out of the asphalt!

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La Brea Tar Pits Tour

Discover our current and past excavation sites and the bubbling asphalt lake.

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Explore The Park

Explore the park and its features, including sculptures of Ice Age animals and the Pleistocene Gardens.

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