A 120 million-year-old tree fossil has been returned by a repentant thief over 35 years after it was stolen.
The remains of the ancient conifer of Igea tree was originally found by a shepherd called Felix Saez Arnedoa a few kilometres away from the hermitage of Virgen del Villar in the northern Spanish province of La Rioja in 1985.
A fossilised tree, also known as petrified wood, is created when the original plant material is first of all covered by sediment and does not decay, because of a lack of oxygen. Over the years, groundwater rich in dissolved solids flows through the sediment, and the original plant material is then slowly replaced by other inorganic substances including silica, calcite, pyrite or even opal.
Pilar Garcia, from the head guide at the Paleontological Interpretation Centre of La Rioja, recalled in an interview with Real Press that two teachers from the town, called Angel Gracia and Elena Torrijos, along with some members of the Science Society of Aranzadi, called Luis Viera and Jose Angel Torres, started to unearth the remains of the tree with help from local school children.
They managed to unearth a trunk which measured around 11 metres ( 36 feet) and according to Garcia: “A river had dragged the tree trunk and eventually left it to be buried in the area where we finally found it.”
She explained that “trees commonly fell into the rivers and were dragged into open land.”
The fossilised trunk remains (word) belong to a conifer tree dating back 120 million years although it is unclear where it was dragged from or which tree it originally belonged to.
The fossils value was greatly increased because it turned out to be a new species of conifer called Dadoxylon Riojente.
Following the first year of its discovery the tree was left there it was found and as a result, it was often vandalised by people trying to take a piece of the ancient tree for themselves.
It was only after a year of exposure that the ancient trunk was put behind a fence and protected from thieves.
The vandalism suffered by the tree is obvious, it has gone from 11 metres (36 feet) to 6 metres (19.6 feet) and there is a visible chunk missing from the middle of the tree which Garcia claims was cut out by vandals.
She added: “They (the vandals) knew what they were doing, although there might have been some that were unaware of the importance of this fossil”.
The vandalism suffered by the tree hit the headlines after Garcia was interviewed by the local radio programme Ser channel.
During the interview, Garcia strongly condemned the damage that had been done to the fossil and the story had a strong effect on public opinion.
One person reached out after hearing the interview and decided to return a piece of the fossil they had stolen.
The repentant thief, who kept his identity hidden, sent the 120 million-year-old piece of bark back in a small box with a letter explaining that he had stolen it 35 years ago.
According to Garcia the anonymous person: “had been thinking about retiring the piece for 25 years, but they finally decided to do it after they heard the interview”.
The remains were sent in a box that was left in the hall of the centre and was addressed to Garcia.
She remembered that she was scared of opening the box but after taking a few deep breaths she finally opened it and was shocked by what she found inside.
Garcia said: “I saw the letter and two huge pieces” she added: “They are the size of two square-shaped.”
She immediately knew that those pieces belonged to the fossil conifer, not only due to her knowledge of the fossil but also because the person had written that it was stolen from there.
In the letter, that person also said that: “the 35 years that have passed in our lives means only two minutes for this fossilized tree in comparison to us”.
The centre has also told citizens on social networks that if they are in possession of other missing pieces they can return them anonymously.
After the delivery of those two remains, a woman called the centre and said that her father had also stolen a piece many years ago and that she was willing to give it back.
However, those recently recovered remains will not be enough to recover all the stolen pieces of this fossil tree but Garcia is happy none the less that some progress is being made.
Garcia has encouraged people to deliver the remains to the centre in an anonymous way and commented that they will not start legal actions against those who took them several decades ago.