By Jeff Hampton
Sitting on a clear glass floor at Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum, children stare down in wonder at the fossilized bones of giant mammoths that walked the earth tens of thousands of years ago. It’s a sight that transfixes visitors of all ages, and if they feel let down somewhat when the tour guide explains that what they are seeing is a plaster cast, their eyes grow wide when they’re told, “but you can see the real bones and more at the Waco Mammoth National Monument just six miles away.”
Six miles is a short distance to go to see a one-of-a-kind wonder of science and natural history, but the story of how the national monument came to be is a long one, almost 40 years in the making. Baylor has been at the center of that story since the beginning and will remain so for years to come, as the mammoths captivate not just children and tourists but students and scientists from Baylor and beyond.
The Waco Mammoth National Monument became the 408th unit of the National Park Service on July 10, 2015, when Barack Obama signed Presidential Proclamation No. 9299. It was the first line of the newest chapter of a story that began in 1978, when two young men went looking for arrowheads near the Bosque River and found an unusual bone protruding from an embankment. They took their find to Baylor’s Strecker Museum, forerunner to the Mayborn Museum, where staff members identified it as a femur from a Columbian mammoth.
Over the next 24 years, Baylor museum staff, students and volunteers excavated the secluded site near where the Bosque and Brazos rivers meet and found more mammoth bones. As the excavators meticulously worked to preserve, field number and map each bone and the site itself, they discovered this was not just a multi-event mammoth cemetery with bones deposited over many years, such as found in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. This was the scene of a single catastrophic event like none other found in the world, which involved the simultaneous death of at least 16 members of a nursery herd –– a group of adult females and their young –– some 65,000 years ago.
Realizing the importance of the find to the future of Waco, landowner Sam Jack McGlasson donated 4.93 acres that included the dig area to the city in 1996. Through gifts and purchases, Baylor acquired another 100-plus acres surrounding the site and deeded it to the city, setting the stage for a unique Baylor-Waco partnership.
While every available precaution was taken to protect the mammoth site and its scientific treasures, including raising a large tent over the excavation, it was not enough for Dr. Ellie Caston, who became director of the Mayborn Museum in 2002 as construction was starting on Baylor’s new museum complex. One of her first acts as director was to “lock down” the mammoth site and its exposed treasures.
“It was never open completely, but far too many people knew about it,” Caston said. “I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that there was no security and that it might be vandalized or items stolen.”
A joint Baylor-Waco organization –– the Waco Mammoth Foundation –– was formed in 2004 to further protect and develop the site. And with help from U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a grant was obtained for a Special Resource Study (SRS), which is a required precursor to a site being considered for a National Park Service (NPS) designation.
Among those dispatched to Waco for the resource study was Dr. Greg McDonald, now a regional paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah. He had been to the site previously with a team engaged by the foundation to consult on the scope and costs of building a permanent structure over the excavation.
“It was a good partnership doing the best it could with limited resources,” McDonald recalled of the work already done by Baylor and the city. “Having the Mayborn Museum as a repository for the bones has been very critical. They are professional with state-of-the-art processes and facilities. That makes us rest easy.”
The SRS was completed in 2008. It recommended a National Park Service designation for the Waco site, but the effort was stalled by political and budget issues. Despite that setback, Rep. Edwards helped secure a grant from the Save America’s Treasures Program and the Waco Mammoth Foundation raised an additional $4.5 million to build a permanent shelter and open the site for research and tourism.
“I really think the study jump-started us to think bigger than we had,” Caston said. “The shelter would be so much more than a box. It would be architecturally attractive and functionally sound. That helped us take it to the next level so it would be NPS-worthy.”
A checklist for an NPS-worthy building came from Anita Benedict, now the collections manager at the Mayborn Museum. As a graduate student in Baylor’s museum studies program, she had visited covered paleo dig sites across the country to write her master’s thesis on the best standards and systems required to protect the Waco mammoths. When the Waco Mammoth Foundation sought bids to design and build a permanent structure, Benedict’s thesis was made part of the bid package. Later, she helped review the bids, interview the finalists, and watch over construction.
“We basically instituted rules that the person in charge from the city would enforce with the contractors,” Benedict said. That included protecting the exposed mammoth specimens with heavy wood boxes during construction, keeping the tent in place until the roof was on, and having Benedict be on site during earthwork in case any new mammoth bones were found, which did happen.
With the building completed, along with a small visitors center and parking lot, the Waco Mammoth Site opened as a city park in December 2009. Meanwhile, the push for an NPS designation resumed and got a boost in 2012 from the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent nonprofit organization that helps groups like the Waco Mammoth Foundation prepare their pitch.
Caston and others went to Washington to make their case for an NPS designation, and the rest is “mystifying,” said Dr. Lee Nordt, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
“We didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” Nordt said. “We’d all but given up, and then over a period of about six months we hear about it and it turns into a monument. We were absolutely ecstatic that it finally happened.”
Long before the Waco Mammoth Site was designated a national monument, informed tourists and school groups were coming in large numbers to take a 30-minute guided tour. From the visitors center, they would walk down a long sidewalk through the Central Texas landscape and come around a bend to see the dramatic, angled dig shelter. But the real drama came inside when they stepped onto a catwalk, and found themselves suspended over the real bones of six mammoths and a few other animals.
But once it became a national monument, it wasn’t long after that before the National Park Service arrowhead logo was hung from the mammoth site sign on Steinbeck Bend Drive and visitor numbers began to surge. In the first 10 months or so after the NPS designation, 46,300 people visited the mammoth site –– more than double the attendance of 18,700 during the same period the previous year.
Raegan King, the monument’s site manager who’s been in charge of directing daily operations since before the NPS designation, said it didn’t hurt that the monument was named in time for the Park Service’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2016. But there’s more to the tourist boom than that.
“I think the reason we have succeeded so greatly in (increasing) visitation is that we came into the Park Service as an operational park,” King said. “We were already open to the public five-and-a-half years as a city park, as an interpretive center.”
The scientific community’s interest is expected to increase over time as well, both for the mammoth site and the Mayborn Museum — where bones that were removed from the site prior to construction of the dig shelter have been kept in climate-controlled storage in anticipation of a new wave of research and discovery.
“The treasure trove that’s not at the mammoth site is here,” said Charles Walter, who succeeded Caston as Mayborn Museum director in August 2015. “That means the museum and Baylor will be very active in the research for years to come because we will be the stewards of this collection. And that’s an interesting point — a lot of museums will go out and collect somewhere in the West and take it back East, but it’s very rare to have an entire collection from a very active site in one place.”
Nordt, an experienced geologist who serves as professor of geosciences as well as Arts & Sciences dean, said there’s no end in sight for discovery.
“It’s exciting, because as much as we know and as much as we think that we know, there’s probably 50 years worth of research here. We’ve hardly scratched the surface,” he said.
Nordt said that Baylor’s Department of Geosciences has been the primary user of the collected material and the site for research so far. That has included traditional studies of the stratigraphy –– the layering of deposits that contain the mammoths –– to help answer questions about the environment, such as were the mammoths in a flood plain, were they in the uplands, and where were the rivers at that time?
“The other approach,” Nordt said, “is to look specifically at the bones and to perform a series of kinds of analyses, often isotopic, that can tell us what kinds of plants the mammoths were eating, how far they roamed and where they were getting their drinking water. The Brazos River system has a different water signal in its isotopes than does the Bosque River.”
Nordt said biologists may be interested in learning why the mammoths were there and what they were eating from the available vegetation. As well, biologists and geologists who study climate changes, along with anthropologists, archaeologists and biological anthropologists, will be interested in information that the site and the collected materials might hold.
“Charles Walter, to his credit, said his number one goal is to build bridges from the Mayborn Museum into the academic side of Baylor and strengthen those ties,” Nordt said, “so that we’re more joined at the hip and we’re using all of their collections, not just those from the mammoth site, to help promote more research collaborations.”
To date, research done by scientists and scholars from other institutions has been sporadic, but Nordt said the National Park Service designation will attract more interest.
“There will be others now coming in,” he said. “There will be a formal application process through the Park Service to conduct various kinds of research, which is what we want. We want more people doing more research on various aspects of the site.”
Beyond the sciences are opportunities for other types of research to be done.
“There are sociological impacts to this, there are cultural impacts, cultural studies,” Nordt said. “There’s all sorts of research initiatives that could spring out of this from a research standpoint.”
Teaching the teachers
One place where the new national monument is already impacting Baylor students is the Department of Museum Studies, which is housed at the Mayborn Museum Complex.
“The window for us as a department is not so much the scientific expertise side but the conservation aspect,” said Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe, chair and professor of museum studies. “A lot of our students are very interested in how to bring the subject to life for general audiences. It’s the interpretive aspect of it. We see a great opportunity for students to get hands-on experience working at a very important site operated by the National Park Service.”
One student who has already taken advantage of the national monument is Emily Clark, who wrote an educational program called Art Rocks for fourth and fifth graders.
“They’ll get to experiment with rocks and other pigments that they can make into paints in the ways that ancient peoples would have been able to make paint. And then they’ll learn about cave art and rock art,” she said.
Clark, who grew up in Joshua, Texas, and now serves as design den coordinator for the Mayborn Museum Complex, earned an undergraduate degree in biology at Baylor in 2013 while interning at Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo.
“I like to be out doing hands-on stuff,” she said. “So when I interned at the zoo and was able to do a lot of their educational stuff I just fell in love with it.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Clark spent a year with AmeriCorps in Austin where she mentored and tutored third through fifth graders.
“That really solidified that I wanted to go work with children all the time, so that led me to Baylor’s museum studies department,” she said. “It’s a small program and that makes it nice because we get a lot of opportunities.”
Those opportunities have included Clark’s invaluable firsthand look at how a city park becomes a national monument through the experiences shared with her by Caston, who still teaches courses in museum studies.
“We got to hear all about going to Washington D.C. and who Dr. Caston got to talk to there. Getting to hear about that was really helpful because who knows where our careers are going to lead? We might get to do something like that too,” said Clark, who went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in museum studies at Baylor and is now design den coordinator at the Mayborn Museum.
Caston tells students that her first trip to Washington with the National Parks Conservation Association was a lesson in politics and people.
“That experience was about networking and understanding the people you need to meet to get in the right doors,” she said.
Caston’s second trip, made with a Waco delegation that included Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., Waco Mammoth Foundation president Gayle Lacy and Baylor administrator Tommye Lou Davis, was made to meet and thank President Obama and celebrate the signing of the proclamation.
“The big takeaway for the second trip was that if you choose to go into the museum profession, it’s really hard work,” Caston said. “The pay isn’t ideal because you’re working for a nonprofit. But at the end of the day you can look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you’re doing, because you’re benefiting people in an important way.”
And for Caston, whose planned retirement from the Mayborn Museum directorship began three weeks after the signing, the timing was ideal.
“You couldn’t dream that. It was the perfect bookend for my years as director of the Mayborn,” Caston said. “And being in the Oval Office with President Obama was an extraordinary way to cap off my career in the museum profession.”
Thanks to the work of Caston and Walter and their counterparts at the City of Waco and the Waco Mammoth Foundation, the bonds between Baylor, Waco and the National Park Service in operating the national monument will remain strong by design.
“Waco is termed as the new model for the future of National Park sites because partnership was called for in the proclamation creating the site,” said Russ Whitlock, superintendent of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park who now oversees the mammoth site. While the NPS owns the five-acre monument, the City of Waco will provide services to the monument and maintain and develop the 100-plus acres around it, and Baylor will continue to manage the fossil collection and archival material.
A “foundation document” that sets strategic goals for the new monument was drafted earlier in 2016 during three days of meetings at the Mayborn Museum. The final draft, expected to be approved by the end of 2016, addresses some of the monument’s immediate needs.
“The numbers are impressive, and already the park has outgrown capacity,” Whitlock said. “I believe the public numbers and desire for opportunities to learn will drive further development in the park with a (new) visitor center, a paleontology lab (and) a children’s discovery area.”
Whitlock said he hopes to receive permanent funds during fiscal 2017 to allow him to hire a journeyman-level park interpreter, a paleontologist/curator and a paleontologist/bone preparer. Already, the NPS has added four interpretive staff/rangers to the Waco site, and Mayborn Museum staff has built a platform inside the dig shelter where researchers and interns will work on some of the bones that have been in storage at the museum.
Nobody is ready for the platform and the other improvements at the site more than Raegan King.
“The number one question asked is, ‘Are you all digging? Why don’t we see people down there working?’” she said. “The platform will help guests see what they expect. They want to see something going on in the dig pit.”
As for active excavation, it will resume as staffing, collection space and other resources allow. To date, the site has yielded 24 mammoths, possibly two camels, a tooth from a juvenile saber-toothed cat, a giant tortoise, and other animals. “We already know that there’s more bones (to be found) just inside this building,” King said.
“For us it opens up the Park Service bag of tricks, which is substantial. They’re masters at what they do,” he said. Already there’s been a workshop held with Baylor educators, museum staff and NPS staff on interpretation, and Walter foresees similar programs on topics such as land management and assessment.
Meanwhile, the Mayborn’s own interpretive mammoth exhibit, including the plaster casts under glass, is now 12 years old. Walter said part of the master plan for the museum’s natural science wing is to update the exhibit to complement what’s happening at the national monument.
“The most obvious thing we can do is say, ‘If you like this, go to the mammoth site,’” Walter said. “That’s reality –– it’s still there.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine.