Fossil treasures at risk in Morocco desert town of Erfoud

By Jalal Al Makhfi ,AFP

ERFOUD, Morocco — In the middle of a sprawling palm grove in Morocco’s remote eastern desert, inhabitants of an oasis town watch over a rare and vanishing treasure. At the entrance of a traditional townhouse visitors are welcomed by a piece of Erfoud’s unusual bounty: the petrified skeleton of a prehistoric creature. This huge ammonite is one of hundreds of archeological jewels in and around the town of 30,000 people, which geologists and archeologists have called ��the largest open air fossil museum in the world.�� During the Palaeozoic era �X about 540 million to 250 million years ago �X the southeast of Morocco lay under the sea, according to Abdelmajid Messoudi, who runs a gift shop in the town. Local collector Abdeslam Kassmi says the area is today home to ��close to 500 varieties of fossils spread over 100 square kilometers (40 square miles)�� including trilobites, which are between 410 and 500 million years old. But scientists warn that over-excavation and lax controls on fossil sales are seriously damaging Erfoud’s archeological and cultural heritage. In the town’s museum, once an exhibition space, a fine cloud of dust hangs above craftsmen who are working to cut, carve and polish the fossils pulled from the ground.

After transporting blocks of stone from a quarry on the outskirts of town, ��workers cut them into pieces, then the artisans sculpt them into diverse objects such as fountains, bathtubs and even tables,�� Massoudi says.

In a region traditionally renowned for its dates �X Morocco is one of the world’s largest producers �X the fossil trade is a rare year-round source of sustainable income for the people of Erfoud.

It also allows the town to attract tourists, some of whom are seeking to enlarge their prehistoric collections.