The Land Before Texas

When dinos roamed the Lone Star State

A map of the dinosaurs of Texas

The Texas Memorial Museum: A Place Dinosaurs Call Home

by Joy Diaz

If you listen to public radio in your car and your kids are in the backseat, chances are – at some point – they have asked you to change the station. But if you work for public radio, as our Joy Diaz does, there’s simply no touching that dial. So her son started to get creative in order to hear what he wanted to hear.

Fausto Diaz asked a question. “Mom? Why don’t we spice up your work up a bit? Can you ask your work if you can do some radio reports about dinosaurs?” 

“OK. Why not?” was Joy’s reply.

Fausto’s idea isn’t half bad. Because in Texas there are dinosaur stories galore! So, we came up with a new series we’re calling “The Land Before Texas: When Dinosaurs Roamed the Lone Star State.”

And we start with the story of the building that houses many of Texas’ prehistoric treasures. 

It’s called the Texas Memorial Museum. It sits on the University of Texas at Austin’s main campus. A huge statue of a saber tooth cat is at its entrance.

Tours for school children are common. Around 35,000 kids visit the museum every year. But few know it as intimately as Patrick Pearsal did when he was a kid.

“So, when I was about six, my mom was a grad student doing her post-doc work at UT in engineering. And, so, when I wasn’t in school, I would go to class with her,” Pearsal says.

Six-year-olds normally don’t do very well in post-doctoral classes. But they do perfectly well learning on their own about dinosaurs 

“And so, on any given day, either my mom or one of her lab partners, who basically took turns watching me after school,  would take me over to the museum,” he says.

And that’s where the former six-year-old – now an Austin attorney – would spend hours exploring and dreaming

“And they have – at that point in my life – the best collection of dinosaur bones you could ever hope to see,” Pearsal says. “So, there’s the entry way that has the flying dinosaur where you can stand in the middle and you can see everything.”

And there’s more, one floor down.

“They have – like the Tyrannosaurus Rex hip bone and the ones that look like giant armadillos with the little spiky tails,” Pearsal says.

For Patrick, it was a safe place, a magical place. “And it was air-conditioned”

And it’s a place whose name has always confused people. The Texas Memorial Museum. Why not the Texas Museum of Natural Sciences or something like that? 

Well, because the museum broke ground in 1936, the year of Texas’ 100 th anniversary. The state went all out to celebrate with a world’s fair in Dallas and a groundbreaking ceremony for this museum in Austin. 

President Delano Roosevelt attended both events.

“My friends of Texas, I have come here today to bear the tribute of the nation – to you on your 100th birthday – for you are 100 years young!”

And so, as a memorial to the state’s history, we got the “Texas Memorial Museum.”

A video was made to document the museum’s construction. The video is so old – the images are grainy and the men look like waddling penguins as they walk. You can see they are busy mixing cement and erecting walls. There’s a reason why this video was taken – it was significant – not only because museums aren’t built every day, but also because the construction came about during the Great Depression. Plus, 1936 was an election year. FDR wanted to be reelected and he needed to show the nation he had been creating jobs.

Today, Pamela Owen is the museum’s associate director. She says beyond political gain, Texas truly needed a place for all its treasures. Scientists and scholars had been asking for one for decades before it was built.

“People from other educational institutions were coming to the state– specially in the field of paleontology – but coming and collecting fossils from Texas’ lands and then they were going on exhibits on East Coast museums,” Owen says. “And Texas [was like] ‘oh, why don’t we have our own museum?’” 

In 1920, UT Professor F.L. Whitney said, “if a Texas student or professor of geology has need to examine a specimen of Dimetrodon, found only in Texas Permian beds, he would have to visit a museum in Chicago, Michigan, or the East.”

To this day, Texas’ bones and fossils live at places like Harvard and New York’s American Museum of Natural History. But thanks to the construction of the Texas Memorial Museum, many others were able to stay in the state – making the long ago past accessible to all Texans. 

“It’s a way to reach back in time and then to reach forward,” Owen says. “Those are all parts of animals and plants that were once alive.”

The Texas Memorial Museum is a place that, if preserved, will teach future generations about the Land Before Texas – and a time where dinosaurs roamed the Lone Star State.

The Find That Put A Central Texas Town On The Archaeological Map

By Ryan Poppe

Note: This story has been updated throughout to reflect corrections made upon further consultation with Dr. Michael Collins.

 If you're from Houston, you're a Houstonian, in Austin, you're an Austinite. And in the central Texas city of Leander – you could be a Leanderthal? That unfortunate nickname for residents came about because of a misconception related to the findings of an archaeological dig a few decades back

Dr. Michael Collins is a research professor at Texas State University and the chairman of the Gault School of Archaeological Research. He’s in his 70s, and has done many archeological digs in his career.

He says, you might not know it, but the dirt below your feet is full of insight into what life was like before our time on earth.

“What was the climate like, what were plants and animals that were around, all of these sorts of things,” Collins says. “So when we excavate a site, the dirt has information that we need to recover.”

Take a minute to think about the world the way Collins does. Say you’re standing in your backyard. Collins would tell you the layers of segmented soil beneath you are like a timeline. Each section contains clues about what life was like during those years. And sometimes, those clues can provide a whole a whole window into another world. And that certainly is the case at what’s called the Wilson-Leonard site, just outside of Austin.

Before 1973, the land was part of the Wilson Land and Cattle Company. That year, Collins says archeologists with the Texas Department of Transportation – who were looking to expand a nearby road – uncovered something they weren’t expecting. It was a massive prehistoric campground, dating back 10,000 years. They found spear tips, grinding stones, and over 150 individual fire pits that were commonly used by Native American tribes during the period.

A decade later, in 1983, excavators uncovered the burial remains of a woman.

“There were stone tools, there were fireplace-like features and so forth and so on, it was a pretty normal campsite, but then she was buried in a small pit within that,” Collins says. 

Collins says the team found the remains in a “flexed” or fetal position and placed in what would have been a shallow grave. The remains dated back to the Archaic period, some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Somewhere along the line, the skeletal remains earned the nickname “LeAnne.” The Williamson County Historical Commission website says it was members of the media who first began to call the remains the “Leanderthal Lady” because of the dig site’s proximity to the city of Leander. This nickname contributed to decades of misinformation about the age of the skeleton and what Collins says is akin to racism against early Native Americans.

Inside the burial pit, archaeologists also uncovered a shark’s tooth the woman possibly wore as a necklace. Archaeologists also found cooking stones – indented rock used to boil water to cook one of the main food staples for Native Americans of the period, camas – the prairie flower that produced a starchy bulb similar to a small sweet potato.

“So they would bake these things and then they pulverized the cooked camas bulbs into a cake, kind of like a hockey puck, highly nutritious. It is the ultimate trail food,” Collins says.

He says the site is an important glimpse into life in North American at the time.

Today, “LeAnne” is a permanent resident of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory in Austin, or TARL. Associate Facilities Director Jonathan Jarvis says it’s the largest archeological repository in the state.

“So say for example, the Wilson-Leonard site, when TxDOT sponsored excavations of that, that was excavated, studied, reported and all of that was brought here to TARL where we house that basically in perpetuity on behalf of the people of the State of Texas,” Jarvis says.

Jarvis says storing artifacts from the site – and “LeAnne” – in a secure, climate-controlled environment gives generations to come the same opportunity to study the materials taken from the dig site.

A 2007 article in the Hill Country News follows up on why the land itself where the remains were found is not open to the public or still being explored. The paper reports the original landowner, Will Wilson Sr., wanted to build an interactive museum, and maintain the 2.5-acre site as an archaeological laboratory. He partnered with the nonprofit Archaeological Conservancy on the project, and the paper reports Wilson viewed it as a way to memorialize his late wife.

But the plans went south and the Hill Country News reports Wilson eventually granted the land to his son. The Archaeological Conservancy sued to reclaim the land. Ultimately, they lost in court.

The Wilson-Leonard site has returned to pastureland. If not for markers including one from the Texas Historical Commission, there’d be no indication the archeological dig was ever there. Its discoveries are now housed miles away. Who knows what mysteries still lie under the soil.