- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

WACO, Texas - Curling, fossilized tusks protrude from a stretch of cracked central Texas dirt, an archaeological treasure that has local leaders pondering the value of ancient bones.

The city of Waco and Baylor University want to preserve the resting ground of a herd of prehistoric mammoths thought to have died in a mudslide about 28,000 years ago.

“There’s a pretty significant community interest to use that site for more than it is being used now, which is research,” said Larry Groth, Waco’s city manager. “But there are reservations on how much it costs.”

Since a large bone was discovered 25 years ago in a dry creek bed, the remains of 24 Columbian mammoths — warm-weather cousins of woolly mammoths — have been found in the thick woods along the Brazos and Bosque rivers. Researchers say the site marks the world’s largest-known concentration of prehistoric mammoths dying in the same natural event.

Local officials have teamed up to discuss possibilities for the site, including building an educational center and petitioning for national park status.

Building a visitors center and enclosing the area where the bones remain could cost $5.5 million, according to a feasibility study completed in November. A projected 40,000 people would visit the first year, with about 30,000 visiting in subsequent years, the study found.

The site never has been open to the public, except for the occasional school group. The city owns the five acres where the remains were found; Baylor bought the surrounding 100 acres after the discovery. The property is protected by a fence and maintained by Baylor.

“It’s a very fine line between wanting to tell people about it and show it off versus preservation and security issues,” said Anita Benedict, exhibits coordinator for Baylor’s Mayborn Museum. The museum, set to open in May, will incorporate the school’s science and natural history museum.

Some nearby residents discovered the first bone in 1978 while walking through the woods, and they went to Baylor to get some answers.

David Lintz, who worked two decades at the university’s museum before retiring in 2001, immediately knew that the giant bone belonged to a mammoth — an animal that lived in the Ice Age, was 10 to 12 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 6 to 8 tons.

Mr. Lintz scoured the creek bed and found teeth and bone fragments. He initiated an archaeological dig, and in the next several years museum employees, students and volunteers carefully dug with their hands to reveal more of the remains.

The discovery was publicized with fanfare, and a national symposium was held in Waco to discuss not only the number of creatures found and their condition, but also how they died, Mr. Lintz said.

The remains indicated that the mammoths were malnourished when they died. Researchers think the herd was heading toward a watering hole or trying to find food when a flash flood hit, trapping them in a ravine. One calf was in the tusks of a bull, which likely was trying to save the baby when the herd died, Mr. Lintz said.

“Everything collapsed on them. Very few of them are on their side,” he said. “But it’s still a mystery. We’re still trying to determine what happened.”

By 1981, the excitement died and the digging team “ran out of steam,” Mr. Lintz said. By then, the group had found eight of the preserved creatures.

When a new museum director arrived in 1983, he obtained grants for equipment and materials to preserve the bones. Using backhoes to lift centuries of dirt, crews slowly continued the dig and over the years found hundreds more bone fragments.

A flash flood in 1984 unearthed three more skeletons, bringing the number to more than a dozen. As more mammoths were found, Baylor decided to leave the bones in the ground and make casts, which will be displayed at the Mayborn Museum.

If a visitors center is built on top of the site, designs call for a glass floor in one display area so people may look down at the embedded skeletons, Miss Benedict said.

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