In an unassuming office in St. Louis, Dr. Michael “Sonny” Trimble and his team are working to get a 66-million-year-old, seven ton tyrannosaurus safely packed and moved cross country. This effort is just one part of a greater undertaking to preserve and share America’s cultural and natural history.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections has responsibility for the overall management of the archaeological artifacts unearthed and historic documents and photos generated by the Corps’ work around the nation.
There are only a handful of nearly complete T. rex fossils in North America, said Trimble, two of which belong to the U.S. Army. In June 2013, the Corps of Engineers agreed to loan the Wankel T.rex, named for its discoverers Kathy and Tom Wankel, to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History for 50 years. The fossil will be a centerpiece of the Museum’s new paleobiology hall, scheduled to open in 2019. The unique effort has presented new challenges to the archaeologists, anthropologists and archivists of the MCX-CMAC and the St. Louis District. Even though the Army’s property books have some unusual items, the Wankel T. rex required more than a hand receipt.
“A loan agreement for a dinosaur is not something you work on every day,” said Trimble. “Jeff Asbed from our Office of Council in St. Louis has really become an expert in putting together the kind of loan agreement needed for this.”
By late March, final preparations were being made to move the T. rex cross-county from Montana to Washington, D.C. Cathy Van Arsdale, MCX-CMAC project manager for the move, is on hand to oversee the inventory and packing of the fossil. But beyond the loan agreement and white glove treatment in moving the fossil, the greatest value the Corps and Trimble’s team get from the loan is the opportunity to share.
“This is one of a handful of exceptional T. rex specimens,” Trimble said, noting that it is the first T. rex specimen discovered with a complete forelimb. “When you have an institution like the Smithsonian – the nation’s premiere museum system – to share it with millions of visitors each year, it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
The loan reflects one of the goals of the MCX-CMAC that is emerging with a changing technological landscape. The team provides archaeological collections management, archival services and knowledge management in addition to identifying and preserving cultural resources at Corps projects. The missions are diverse, but to Trimble, they’re all pointing to a common goal: ensuring one of the largest artifact collections in the nation is not only protected and preserved, but is available to as many people as possible.
Since 1906, Congress has passed a series of laws and regulations that recognize the importance of our nation's archaeological and historic heritage. These regulations and laws identify archaeological and historic materials as nonrenewable resources that must be preserved for the education and use of future generations, and the Corps has been an early adopter of this effort.
“As an agency, our collection is one of a kind,” said Trimble, citing the surge of post-World War II reservoir and flood control construction as the catalyst that grew the Corps’ collection to its current scale.
Now he wants to get that material in the eyes and hands of the public. Although it sounds like a contradiction to push for both preservation and access, the CMAC team is making unique efforts to change the way people interact with history.
Over his 27 years with the Corps of Engineers, Trimble has seen a shift in archaeology away from the strictly research-focused days of his early career. When he was in graduate school in the 1980s, close encounters with Federal artifacts were limited to experts and graduate students. But in order to best preserve our history and further science education, the artifacts need to come out of the box.
“The most value for us as a nation is the information and content of these collections,” he said. “We have teachers across the U.S. that are starting to use the content of archaeology – pictures of artifacts or the objects themselves – to teach young children the basics of science.
“That’s a much more powerful concept than just carrying out research. In a grade school environment you’re using archaeology to convey information and ideas. It’s not so important that the children learn about the prehistory of the Mississippi Valley from these artifacts, but by studying archaeology, they can learn how science is carried out. They can learn the scientific method through understanding these artifacts.”
Beyond the educational value is the potential for crowd-sourcing the Corps’ collection online. Trimble recognizes that there are experts from outside the traditional academic or archaeological backgrounds who may have new insights to the collection. He cites the community of amateur enthusiasts that exists across the United States. The availability of the Corps’ collection online will give them access to materials collected over more than six decades and potentially spur new ideas, theories and innovations.
“Our collections should not just be a warehouse of material. I think the sky is the limit with these collections, but we have to be creative about it,” said Trimble. “Look at how we communicate now and reach people through content on social media. That is what the MCX is doing: we’re producing content so that any person at a computer can have access, whether it’s someone interested in arrowheads from Missouri or a teacher wanting to use content in the classroom.”
Through an agreement with Arizona State University, the CMAC will soon be able put content online, allowing the public to study archaeological collections from home, Trimble said. As part of the agreement, the content can be migrated to future platforms without incurring additional costs, preserving the online database that is rapidly taking shape.
Helping in this effort are the participants in the Veterans Curation Program, through which the Corps employs and trains American military veterans in scanning scientific records, photographing artifacts, as well as preserving the collections both physically and digitally. The veterans at three labs in St. Louis, Augusta, Ga., and Alexandria, Va. are helping rehabilitate, digitize and archive the vast Corps collections as they learn career skills in a professional environment.
“This is the most exciting period in American archaeology I’ve seen in my career. The whole paradigm of how we access these collections and use them is changing. It’s going from mostly specialists or grad students being able to look at or touch these artifacts to anybody,” said Trimble. “We’ve spent public money on preserving the artifacts, and they have great public value. The more we share them with people, the more valuable they will be.”