Mammoth graveyard may someday be open to public
Remains of at least 25 mammoths have been found at the Waco Mammoth Site near Waco. "I've worked at a lot of sites, and you don't see places like this," says Anita Benedict of the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor, which manages the site. WACO -- Not far from modest suburban homes in the middle of some thick Texas woods lies a secret boneyard.Surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and covered by what looks like a red-and-white circus tent, the site contains the remains of towering monsters. Remains of at least 25 mammoths, signs of a big saber-toothed cat and a long extinct camel have been found at the site.This is the Waco Mammoth Site, a collection of prehistoric fossils embedded in the dirt not far from the Bosque River. The site could be a potent educational resource if it were not off-limits to schoolchildren. It's been called a national treasure in the heart of Texas, but it remains closed to the public.On Wednesday, reporters were allowed to tour the backwoods site, a rare event. Waco city leaders and curators from BaylorUniversity are in the process of creating a new management plan for the site and hope to open it to the public soon. They are seeking public comment and financial support for the creation of a permanent structure to protect the fragile artifacts. That led to the media tour, although reporters had to agree not to disclose its exact location in order to protect the artifacts from looters."It's a nationally significant site for this time period. You don't find something like this anywhere else in the nation," said National Park Service official Russ Whitlock, who joined university and city officials at the site."It's a wonderful site, it's amazing. I've worked at a lot of sites and you don't see places like this," said Anita Benedict, collections manager of the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor, which manages the site.At the middle of the dig, which is sunk into the clay about two feet below a makeshift boardwalk, are the bones of a massive Columbian mammoth. Big, even for a mammoth, the bull probably stood 14 feet tall at the shoulders, which is about 30 percent larger than a modern-day elephant. Its 6-foot tusks are clearly visible, as are its ribs, a molar, and bones from its front and hind legs.Benedict said that the bull was found with the remains of a calf in its tusks, as if it were attempting to lift the young mammoth from danger. She said a female mammoth was also found with a young calf in its tusks. One of the mammoths had a broken rib, which Benedict said appeared to indicate some sort of conflict with another mammoth."It looks like they got into a defensive circle," Benedict said. It's unclear, however, why they all died together and why the site contains such a rich collection of fossils."We're not sure what happened but there are hypotheses," she said. "There was a flood, they got trapped in the ravine and couldn't get out of it. The mud here is very sticky."In all, 25 mammoths were found at the site, and more may remain buried, she said. The remains of 16 mammoths have been removed and are in storage at the MaybornMuseum. The museum features an exhibit duplicating the skeletal remains of the bull mammoth with the calf in its tusks.The site was discovered by a pair of amateur fossil hunters in 1978. They reported it to BaylorUniversity, and by 1990 experts had identified, preserved and removed the remains of 15 mammoths. Later an additional 10 were found.The fossils date back about 68,000 years to a time when central Texas had fewer trees and more grassland. One National Park Service expert said the area probably then seemed more like the Serengeti plains in Africa, and was probably a bit cooler and wetter.Some of the proposed site management plans contemplate turning the site over to the federal government so it could become part of the National Park Service inventory A 2002 law signed by President Bush calls for the completion of a study to determine how best to protect the resource, how best to allow public use, and the feasibility of adding it to the federal park system.A National Park Service official estimated Wednesday that it could cost about $1.5 million annually to operate the site as park. But like the TexasParks and Wildlife Department, the National Park Service has faced funding shortfalls and so may look to partner with local authoritiesBut even without the National Park Service's involvement, BaylorUniversity and city officials hope to have the site open to the public on a limited basis within a year or so. A spokeswoman for Mayborn Museum at Baylor said supporters have so far raised more than $1 million in donations, which will be used for the construction of a building and restrooms.The spokeswoman said boosters hope to raise a total of $2.3 million and then begin the painstaking process of building a structure that will help protect the bones without damaging the dig.At the same time, officials conducting the special resource study should soon be reporting back to Congress about the feasibility of turning the Waco Mammoth Site over to the National Park Service.