Dinosaur-Track Rescue Mission Under Way at UT ... Slowly

Bureaucratic hurdles not withstanding, legendary fossils could soon have new home.

Texas Memorial Museum's Ed Theriot, with tracks
Texas Memorial Museum's Ed Theriot, with tracks (Photo by Jana Birchum)

A legendary set of dinosaur tracks that have been deteriorating outside UT's Texas Memorial Museum for nearly two decades could soon have a new home – if the project can make it over the last of a long series of bureaucratic hurdles.

While making a plaster cast of the tracks in 1988, sculptor Peggy Maceo noticed that the tracks' stone surface was literally turning to dust and informed the museum's director. For five years, nothing was done about the tracks until a 1993 report called attention to them once more. The report suggested monitoring, cleaning, and making alterations to the antiquated track house.

Despite the university's efforts, however, the tracks continued to decay. The problem was the track house itself, which was built in the 1940s when the fossils were first brought to the university from the excavation site near Glen Rose, Texas (now the site of a creationist museum claiming the tracks provide evidence of human-dinosaur coexistence). Ed Theriot, director of the Texas Memorial Museum, said that because of poor storage, the tracks essentially started breaking down the moment they were excavated. "Sixty years ago, they really didn't have an idea of how to treat and conserve these things. They thought, 'Hey, these tracks were safe in the ground. Why wouldn't they be safe above ground?'" Theriot said. "Now technology has really caught up with our desires."

The house afforded the tracks little protection from the elements. Not only were the fossils exposed to the devastating effects of humidity, the report said, but squirrels and other animals were slipping into the track house and using the tracks as a toilet. In 1997, a second report came out recommending the fossils be relocated inside. But the wheels of the university bureaucracy were slow to turn, and for the next decade, the project remained mired in red tape.

The university took no steps toward a relocation project until 2004, when contract architects were inspecting the museum for repairs and noticed the state of the tracks. Shortly thereafter, College of Natural Sciences Dean Mary Ann Rankin met with the architects and Theriot and determined the fossils were in a state of "emergency." Rankin tasked Theriot with finding a conservator, but heels would be dragged for another two years before a request for qualifications was put out in fall 2006.

The first request drew no bidders, so it was redrafted and submitted again in July 2007. The second time around, five conservationists attended a presubmittal conference, and two submitted proposals. Though the contract hasn't officially been awarded, UT officials have reportedly settled on Conservation Solutions out of New Mexico, which submitted another proposal in late December, and now they're moving on to the next stage, which involves hammering out the specifics, said Daniel Heath of Project Management and Construction Services for UT-Austin. The project is taking so long because it can't be carried out by a garden variety contractor, Heath said. As he put it: "It's not like fixing a toilet."

Despite the snags, Theriot said he's satisfied with the way things have progressed thus far. "The pace that we're moving forward with reflects the careful deliberation that is need[ed]," he said, adding: "They're still in very good shape. We've caught it before it has become critical."

But local sculptor Mike O'Brien, who has campaigned for years to have the tracks restored, begs to differ. O'Brien said the tracks' deterioration is obvious, even to a layman. "[Theriot] and I are friends, but for him to say that the tracks aren't in bad condition. ... They're in appalling condition!" O'Brien is also skeptical the project is moving forward. He says he's heard the same song and dance ad nauseam. "They say it'll be next week, and then next week comes, and they say it'll be another week. And that can go on forever and ever."

Even after the contract is awarded, the specific funding remains uncertain. Once the conservator is officially named and cost estimates come in, said Theriot, the university will likely have to find a private donor to underwrite the project. O'Brien says he hopes the university will take action soon, because he wants to get on with his life. "I would just like UT to say when it is going to happen. I want them to commit to some type of schedule."

*Oops! The following correction ran in the February 1, 2008 issue: We misidentified sculptor Peggy Maceo as Pam Maceo in last week's "Dinosaur-Track Rescue Mission Under Way at UT ... Slowly." The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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Dinosaur fossils, University of Texas, Texas Memorial Museum, Pam Maceo, Glen Rose, Ed Theriot

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