Leaving behind the noise and pollution of Cairo, the drive across the monotonous buff desert comes almost as a relief. After passing through the lush farmlands of the Fayum Oasis and back out onto the desert plains, the first sign of the fossils to come is unexpected and indicated by the desert surface changing from pale brown to silver-grey. Looking closer at the shiny silver desert surface, fossils became visible, being millions of giant nummulite foraminifera covering the desert surface, each polished to a metallic sheen by millennia of sand blasting. However, it was not forams that we had been invited to study. Rather, it was far larger and more impressive specimens we had come to see and the appearance of dramatic sandstone cliffs on the horizon heralded some of the most extraordinary fossiliferous rocks that I, for one, have ever seen.
The fossils of the Fayom are by no means a recent discovery – they have been the source of vast numbers of important finds for over 120 years. The earliest collections were made during a series of expeditions by Georg Schweinfurth, from 1879 to 1886, and it was during these that the first fossil whales were recovered from the Eocene rocks north of Lake Birket Qarun. Despite the success of these expeditions, Schweinfurth never ventured to the western end of the region and never saw the most impressive assemblages of fossil whales. As the twentieth century dawned, the Fayum became a busy place, with a number of expeditions of German, and then British and American, palaeontologists working in the area. Although the abundant whales of the western Fayum were discovered as early as the 1902/1903 field season, little was collected and the focus remained on the area north of Birket Qarun, where land mammals, such as the early elephant, Moeritherium, and the double-horned, Arsiniotherium, were collected. In 1906, Henry Osborn, of the American Museum of Natural History, re-visited the whale-rich area to the west and coined the term “Zeuglodon Valley” as a result of the abundance of the whale Zeuglodon (now known to be the same as Basilosaurus). Osborn also noted the problems with working at the site – it was remote (three days camel ride from the other areas they were exploring), arid and the fossils very large. Together, these made collecting very difficult. Therefore, over the succeeding decades, emphasis again focussed on the area north of Birket Qarun, with land mammals and, in particular, early primates being the main target.
It is probably as much down to the invention of four-wheel drive vehicles as the renewed interest in whale evolution that caused the changes in palaeontological interest that opened up Zeuglodon Valley, now renamed Wadi Al-Hitan (Valley of Whales in Arabic), to study. Over the last 30 years, this has been led by Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology and his co-workers, who have recorded about 300 fossil whales in the area, as well as fossils of seacows, turtles, crocodiles, fish and many others. As the importance of the site became more evident, so did its accessibility and it became a popular day out from Cairo, often culminating in tourists picking up a couple of whale bones as souvenirs. Therefore, to protect the site, it was proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and gained that status in 2005. It was then incorporated into the far larger Wadi Rayan protected area. With the protection of the site secured, it was developed for public access and many of its fossils are now laid out where they were uncovered (or at least close by), and is now a feature of many tourist excursions from Cairo.