Q&A: Ellie Caston

January 5, 2006
Dr. Ellie B. Caston is lecturer in museum studies, acting chair of museum studies and the director of the Mayborn Museum Complex. Randy Fiedler spoke with her to find out what's in the works for the Waco Mammoth Site, which has occupied the talents and imaginations of Baylor researchers for 28 years.

BAYLOR NEWS: In this interview we'd like to bring people up to date on the Waco Mammoth Site. What is it, and how was it discovered?

DR. ELLIE CASTON: It was discovered in 1978 when two Waco residents, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, were walking along and noticed a large bone protruding from an eroding creek bank. They decided this was interesting and called the Strecker Museum at Baylor because everybody who found something unusual called the Strecker Museum. At that point Bryce Brown was Strecker's director, and he told staff member, David Lintz to go check it out, and that's how Baylor's involvement started. That's not unusual, because many very important sites have been discovered by local citizens and then they usually go to a museum or university.

From 1978 to 2001 or so there were various excavations done at the mammoth site, but those excavations depended on finances. Calvin Smith was Strecker's director for most of that time, and when he would have a group that was interested they'd go out and dig for a while. The workers continually documented their finds, eventually jacketed the bones they found, and brought them back to the museum. So this sort of had fits and starts all during those years. As of today, 24 mammoths have been discovered. They're not all complete skeletons . There may only be parts of some of them, but there are 24 different individual beasts, and of course the significance of the site internationally is that it's the largest concentration of a herd of mammoth dying at the same time from some sort of catastrophic event.. We know that there are probably more mammoths out there, but we have stopped excavations for a variety of reasons.

BN: What are some of the reasons you've stopped excavating?

EC: The bones unearthed at the site are very delicate, and exposure to the air and the elements is bad for them. So most of them were removed through a process called plaster jacketing. It's a safe way to encapsulate the bones in a giant plaster jacket and then bring them back to the museum. We have a huge room upstairs full of these giant plaster jackets that have the bone material in them. It's all mapped out so we know where they were originally located at the site. At this point there are only parts of six mammoth skeletons left at the site; one of which is the bull mammoth. There was a mold made of it, which was a very elaborate procedure, and then a plaster cast was made from the mold, painted, and that's what's in our exhibit at the museum. It's an exact replica of the bull mammoth that's still out at the site. That's how we have brought the mammoth site to the public at this point.

Around 2002 we had a paleontologist visit us, and we asked him to come to the mammoth site, take a look at things and give us his assessment. His immediate recommendation was that we stop all excavation and close the site to any visitation whatsoever. The reason was preservation. The site wasn't open to the public on a regular basis, but on occasional tour would be given for various groups. . So we stopped all of that, which was somewhat unpopular. I still get calls today from people wanting to go out and see the site, but we've limited visits only to scientists. So today, we are in a preservation mode and are going to keep the site safe until we can do the right thing with it.

As far as further excavation in the future goes, we don't know when and if that will happen. But there is a method in archeology and paleontology called banking a site that uses the idea that sometimes the best thing to do with a site is to leave it alone. The mammoth bones have been under the ground for 68 thousand years and they're just fine. Leave them alone until we have a long-term plan and resources to protect and preserve the material.. That's where we are right now.

BN: The latest wrinkle is that the mammoth site could end up being a national park. What's the story?

EC: It's very exciting. In 2001, Congressman Chet Edwards presented legislation to get approval for the National Park Service to come and conduct a feasibility study to see if it would be appropriate to include the mammoth site as part of the National Park System. Some people immediately assumed that meant it had been approved as a national park, which of course it didn't. All it meant was that the Park Service had the authority to study it to see if it might one day become a national park. But Congress didn't originally appropriate any money to do the study, so it wasn't until the summer of 2005 that money was made available to do the study.

The team the Park Service put together came in last summer for the first time, met with us and then looked at the site. A very small group went out there, just Baylor officials, city officials and the team. The Park Service team was very excited about what they saw, and they were in complete agreement that shutting down the site was the right thing to do.

BN: What happened after the Park Service team visited the site?

EC: Well, the process to get a site fully evaluated is a lengthy one. The Park Service folks came back in October 2005 for what they call the public scoping aspect of it. They wanted to hear from the public, to hear if this site is important to them and what they want. The Park Service representatives were blown away by the positive response they got in Waco. A total of four different sessions were held during the day, three with focus groups that looked at everything from the tourism and economic aspects to the scientific aspect, and then an open public forum in the Museum's SBC Theater that filled all 180 seats.

The public is very interested in the mammoth site. They want to be able to go out and see the real deal. They love our mammoth exhibit here at the museum, and it's our most popular exhibit. Ultimately what we want to do is make the real site accessible to the public, but we have a ways to go before we can do that.

BN: This might be a strange question, but if all but a few of the sets of mammoth bones has been removed, what is there left to see at the site?

EC: If Congress approves this (as a national park), then we begin looking at how it's going to happen. What is the visitor center going to look like? What will the interpretation be? Do we try and put some of the bones back out there? What kind of enclosure do we build, or should we be creative in our interpretation and lay out an artistic bone field, a CSI kind of thing, where you can see the whole picture with chalk outlines? Or do we want to investigate further where there may be more bone material and have an active excavation going on, so people can come and watch scientists digging and finding bones? Deciding just what will be at the site is a number of steps on down the road.

BN: What remaining steps are involved in getting government approval for the mammoth site?

EC: Concerning the process we are in with the National Park Service, we've had the public scoping and they're now looking at the feasibility of this site and whether and there are sufficient public interest in it. The next step is that if we meet the significance, suitability and feasibility hurdles, which we will know in the spring of 2006, then we can proceed. If we don't meet them, then the study concludes and everybody walks away. Then we are on our own.

If we get the green light to continue the study, then what we'd do is spend a year talking about management options. It could be that the National Park Service says they will manage the whole thing, period. They would send their own people in to take care of it. Many of our national parks are in fact run that way, but it's very expensive to do. That's why they also want to look more at how the mammoth site is run right now, as a joint project between the City of Waco and Baylor University. (The Park Service) has been very complimentary of that partnership and how well we've worked together, so they are looking at the possibility of continuing that partnership. Maybe they will become a partner with us in this, or it may be a combination of a variety of things. That's the next step.

After that we'll go through more public scoping sessions, and then the final study document and recommendation goes to Congress in the summer or fall of 2007. Then, if Congress approves it, we take whatever recommendation they have and begin looking at how it's going to happen. The design and construction phases could take another five years or so. Everybody gets very disappointed when they hear this time frame but let's not get discouraged, we're all moving in a positive and productive direction.

BN: While you're waiting to see what happens with Congress, will there be projects going on involving the mammoth site?

EC: Absolutely. We are proceeding with some of our independent activities, which we want to do for preservation's sake as well as for the work involved. An important thing happened in 2004 that has really helped us along. Congressman Chet Edwards was able to secure some money for the museum so that we have been able to do some things with the material we already have, such as organizing years and years worth of photographs and other materials in our archives and providing state of the art storage cabinets. That's now in much better shape. We also plan to also go ahead and enhance our exhibit and do a film and publication about the mammoth site. Those are positive things no matter what happens.

BN: Will there be any changes at the site itself in the near future?

EC: The National Park Service team has told us that what we need to do is get a more protective structure out there. Right now the bone bed is covered by a large tent, but the problem is that over the years the area has eroded outward so that the tent is not covering the entirety of the site as it used to. The wrinkle is that the National Park Service, if they choose to come in and make it a national park, will probably remove anything that we have erected there, so we don't want to do anything permanent. It needs to be removable. What we're looking at is erecting kind of a pole barn structure that would be more protective than the tent, and doing things such as adding some drainage that that would further stabilize and protect the site. Congressman Chet Edwards has helped us once again by helping us secure a grant from the Save America's Treasure program for this purpose, but we will need to raise some matching funds as well. We plan for this to happen in the next year so that we continue our preservation efforts while this study continues regardless of where it ends up.

BN: Do we know for sure if there are more mammoth bones at the site waiting to be discovered?

EC: From what I understand there was a boring done some years ago, a small core boring, and it brought up not only dirt but also some bone fragment. It appears there is at least one more mammoth, with a hole punched in it, somewhere down there. Obviously we would have to do a lot of testing before we built a visitor center because we wouldn't want to build it over any bones. It's not something that is real easy to figure out, thus all the studies we're making.

One of the most interesting things we have found recently involves the age of the mammoth bones. When the original dating was done on the mammoth site it was probably 25 years ago, and they used the best method they had at the time. It determined that the mammoth site was 28,000 years old. Two years ago, Dr. Lee Nordt here at Baylor came to me and said there is a new dating technique being used by a colleague of his that he would like to try at the mammoth site. So he brought in Dr. Steve Forman from the University of Illinois at Chicago and they conducted a new type of test which ended up re-dated the site between 65,000 and 73,000 years old. That's much older than we thought, putting it in a whole different environment.

Right now we have a graduate student, John Bongino in the Department of Geology who is doing his thesis on the microstratigraphy of the site. By studying the individual layers of soil he is trying to narrow down and prove or disprove our scenario that all of these mammoths at the site died at exactly the same time from the same event. Newer scientific methods are allowing us to do things we couldn't do 10 or 20 years ago. It may be that within the next five years there will be a way to be able to look and see what's under the site without digging it up. To me, that's the most exciting thing about the site, which it continues to tell us more about this story that people love. It's absolutely fascinating.

BN: Wait a minute. If all of the mammoths didn't die at the same time, but are buried in the same place, wouldn't that give credence to the old legends about elephant graveyards where they all go to die?

EC: Which is also an interesting story isn't it? Again, science is science, and when I told some folks that we were re-dating the site there were a lot of nervous people. What if the site is not as old as we thought it was? It won't be nearly as exciting. Well, the truth is the truth, and then it turned out to be so much older! Everybody was amazed. So whether or not they all died at the same time, that's another story. We know that a group of them did die at the same time but there are so many of them.

Another intriguing thing to me is there is a camel skeleton among the mammoth bones. Wouldn't it be fun to do the story from the camel's point of view? Was he just kind of hanging out with elephants and got trampled? Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

So this story is a great story no matter what, and the mystery continues. The fact that we keep solving little pieces of it, or we keep getting more information that just leads to more questions, is also very exciting. The last chapter has not been written by any means.

BN: If the National Park Service doesn't end up getting involved, would that mean there would be no realistic expectation that more excavations would be done? Is government involvement and money a key to getting more excavation done at the site?

EC: I don't think so. I think the National Park Service study has prompted us to get very focused on what we're going to do out there, and understand that this is an extraordinary treasure for Waco and that we are the stewards of it. There are people at Baylor University and the City of Waco and surrounding communities who feel passionately about this, so I think regardless of what happens on the national government level something will happen locally. We will open that site to visitation, one way or the other.

Now, what that will look like is still unknown. How elaborate it can be with or without the National Park Service I don't know, but we have a strong partnership and there are lots of people excited and interested in this. Yes, we're going to have find donors and yes, we're going to have to find some serious money. You don't do this on the cheap, but I think at this point to go do a major fund raiser is premature because how can you really ask someone to give a substantial amount of money and say, by the way, the National Park may come in and tear it out in three to five years? So we have to be smart and patient. Our preservation efforts continue, the science that is happening out there continues, but everyone just has to be patient. In the meantime, we invite people to come here to the museum, walk up on the glass floor and see the mammoth exhibit.

BN: How important would opening the mammoth site to the public in some way be for attracting tourism to Waco?

EC: It would be great, another incredible attraction added to the list. Now that we have the Mayborn Museum Complex up and running, along with Waco's many other fine museums and attractions, the mammoth site would be another big draw. It makes Waco even more of a destination spot to come and spend a weekend because there is so much to do.

BN: What does this site mean for faculty and students here at Baylor? Is this important for research and student involvement here?

EC: Oh yes, that's exactly why. You can think very narrowly, for our museum students who are interested in any sort of field work in collections and preservation efforts, but then you can also open it up. For example, we have a great partnership with the Department of Geology in that one of their graduate students is doing state-of-the-art, cutting edge science out at the site, which he could not be doing anyplace else. He couldn't be doing this research at any other university in the country, so what a great opportunity it is. John will also have a graduate assistantship at the museum this spring so that he can help us with the material we have here related to the mammoth site. Again, this is something that is absolutely unique. There are very few universities that are within five miles of a paleontological site of this significance. It makes for all kinds of possibilities.

BN: So, in summary, you're optimistic about the future of the mammoth site?

EC: I'm more optimistic than ever about this, because I think now we -- Baylor University, the City of Waco and the National Park Service -- are all focused on a common goal, and it's going to take that kind of unified effort to make this happen. I think we're on the right path and are absolutely going to move forward. I have no idea what it's going to look like, or how long it's going to take, or how much money it's going to cost, but I feel that all of the work we're doing right now is of great benefit.

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