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The Petrified Forest of Lesvos

Trees old and new in the forest park

The Petrified Forest of Lesvos is a unique glimpse of prehistoric times

Cross-section of a petrified tree trunk
Petrified stump on the road to Sigri
Exhibits inside the Natural History Museum

Holiday visitors heading to the west of the island of Lesvos will probably pass over the bare, treeless slopes of hillsides around the port resort of Sigri.

These remote, bare hillsides were once densely forested by sequoia and cypress. When nearby Mount Ordymnos erupted around 20 million years ago it spewed out tons of volcanic ash that buried the forest.

Unusually, the trees were not burned to the ground. Blanketed by ash and preserved by acid and iron pyrites, they have formed what today is the World Heritage site that is the Petrified Forest of Lesvos.

The name, along with the signposts planted all over Lesvos, may create visitor expectations that fail to deliver on a visit to the site. There is frankly not a great deal to see beyond petrified tree stumps that could easily be mistaken for rocks.

But the area's scientific importance is beyond question and the Petrified Forest of Lesvos is the largest in Europe. Unlike other sites of petrified trees, the specimens on Lesvos are remarkable for the state of preservation with fruits, leaves, branches clearly seen, often in beautiful agate sheen and polished striations.

On display for the visitor are a score or so of the best-preserved standing trunks, a few over seven metres in height and several fallen specimens as long as 20 meters with massive root balls.

The best specimens are located near the Natural History Museum. south of the resort of Sigri, but petrified stumps are found all over the surrounding valley, especially along the track that leads west from Eressos towards Sigri. More can be seen at Sigri itself and on the western shore of the islet of Nisiopi which sits offshore from Sigri.

Museum exhibits put the fossil finds in the wider context of the palaeontological history of the early Mediterranean. It shows examples of trees that were the precursors of palms, poplars, beech and plane trees with petrified leaves, fruits and roots on show.

The museum was established in 1994 to study, research and promote the park and in 2000 it became a founding member of the European Geopark Network to protect and develop geologic parks and monuments at a European.

A year later the museum was awarded the Eurosite Management Award for its work on the Lesvos Petrified Forest and in 2004 the site was included in the Global Geopark Network by UNESCO.

Excavations carried out in the Antissa region in 1999 unearthed the bones of the first fossilized animal ever found in the petrified forest. The bones belong to the dinotherium, a large trunked ancestor of the elephant. Workers fund a complete jawbone with teeth along with other animal bones.

It is thought the prehistoric creature lived on the shores of a lake that existed there 25 million years ago and its body ended up in the lake where it was buried by sediments and eventually fossilised.

There have been very few finds of large vertebrates from the Lower Miocene age in Europe and the rare fossil finds are of great significance.