The La Brea Tar Pits has re-opened its observation pit to tourists for the first time in 20 years. The area was first opened to the general public in 1952.
Fossils, such as a mastodon, an ancient relative of the elephant, can be seen from the facility. Tourists can also see a ground sloth and the skull of a saber tooth tiger.
"When people come here, they can see what the excavators see. They can see the fossils as they occur in the ground," John Harris, chief curator of the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum, is quoted as saying by ABC 7 in Los Angeles.
The observation pit was designed by architect Harry Sims Bent, who had previously created building designs for CalTech and the Los Angeles Central Library. The pit was once open to the outside, where visitors could touch the artifacts. This situation did not last long.
"Because of vandalism to the fossils, panels with drawings and text replaced the windows; and skylights were affixed. Although staged (a la 1950s interpretation), the observation pit contains mostly real bones, including those of saber-toothed cats, ground sloths, and dire wolves," La Brea officials stated on the observation pit website.
La Brea Tar Pit officials stopped staffing the area in the mid 1990's. Tours began to highlight live work taking place in other locations at the site.
"It closed about 20 years ago because we decided to focus on excavators, rather than the stuff in the ground," Harris told reporters.
Another reason for closing the pits had to do with the cost associated with guarding the artifacts. Some of the remains are 50,000 years ago and worth vast sums of money.
"On the open market now, the saber tooth cat skull fetches around $250,000. So we can only open this pit up when we have the resources to look after it and make sure the fossils are safe guarded," Harris told the press.
Animals which became mired in the La Brea Tar Pits lived between 50,000 and 11,000 years ago, during the last ice age. Many of these species may have roamed the Los Angeles area up to 100,000 years ago. Before that time, the region was underneath the Pacific Ocean.
More than five million fossils have been discovered on the 23-acre grounds since 1913. The oldest of these is a 55,000 year-old piece of wood, and a coyote, which carbon dating places at 46,800 years old. Biologists believe the environment in the past was much like soft asphalt, causing animals to become stuck in the tar, like insects on flypaper.