Dig in the Dirt and Back in Time with HMNS at the George Ranch!

by Sabrina Dahlgren

Everyone invariably reaches an age when an adult will admonish them to stop playing on the ground and getting their clothes dirty. Archaeologists are among those people who decide that playing in the dirt is too much fun to ever give up, and that they are going to make a living (though maybe not a very lucrative one) out of it.

Archaeology is a combination of curiosity, science, history, and humanities. Precise methods are utilized to uncover artifacts that provide information about past people, societies, or cultures. That information must then be analyzed and put into context to provide a picture of the past that can inform us about how we have changed over time as individuals and as groups.

The principles and methods of archaeology are simple enough to understand, though the work itself can be very physical and demanding. One opportunity to experience such work is to participate in a dig in your area. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is fortunate to have teamed up with the George Ranch Historical Park and the Fort Bend Archaeological Society to host supervised digs at the George Ranch.


Our one-meter-square plot was carefully delineated and I and a few of the dads removed the upper layer of sod.

Join us at our next exciting dig Saturday, March 5! It’s easy to get signed up. Just register online! Registration is $45 and $30 for members. Children must be accompanied by an adult chaperone.


The George Ranch Historical Park showcases more than 190 years of modern Texas history spanning four generations.

Nancy and Henry Jones claimed their league of land (4,428 acres) in 1824 as part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colonization of Mexican territory along the Brazos River. Mary Moore, known as “Polly”, third of the Jones’s 12 children, inherited most of the family’s assets and along with her husband, William M. Ryon, greatly expanded their holdings. By the 1880’s, the family’s combined holdings, including land owned (by Polly, her brother and her son-in-law) and land leased, was 67,668 acres (about 12 percent of the total area of Fort Bend County). Polly’s granddaughter Mary Elizabeth, “Mamie,” the wife of Alfred P. George, inherited the property when Polly died in 1896. The family’s monetary fortunes expanded further when oil was discovered in the 1920’s, though personal tragedy marked by the deaths of the Georges’ infant son and adult niece in the coming years meant no heir would inherit the family’s estate. In order to preserve their legacy, Mamie and Alfred established the George Foundation to benefit Fort Bend County’s people.


The soil was passed through a rock sifting screen.

Why is all of this history important, you ask? Because the historical ranch site has been continually occupied by settlers and their descendants and trustees over nearly two centuries. More than 23,000 acres are still a working ranch, not to mention the native peoples and fauna that have ranged over the site for thousands of years.

And what does this mean? Stuff to find, if you dig deep enough and in the right spot! Keep on reading to learn what it’s like to go out on a dig.

DIG DAY: The Story of Our Last Adventure

It started overcast and early. The drive from Houston to the George Ranch on a Saturday morning is a relatively quick, low-traffic affair. You should know that I’ve lived in Texas for a few decades of my life, so my definition of a quick drive is anything under an hour. This drive clocked in at around 35 minutes.

The main entrance to the ranch led to a large parking lot stretching to the right, various structures seen dotting the surrounding space. Our interest lay in a small patch of soil in the northeast corner. My scouts and their parents met me there, where we were instructed by Robert Crosser and Dottie Allen of the Fort Bend Archaeological Society on where to dig. Our general location was part of the Jones’s original 1830s log cabin site, which encompasses part of the terrain of the 1850s prairie home that burned down in 1888, possibly housed a Civil War cavalry unit that camped in the area overnight, and held the 1930s bachelor cowboys houses. The potential for a big discovery was there, if we happened to be digging in the right spot.


Real archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones.

The Fort Bend Archaeological Society provided tools: shovels, trowels, buckets, and a box screen, as well as resealable plastic bags, permanent markers, record sheets and pencils. We brought other personal things like gloves, sunscreen, bug spray, wet wipes, water and snacks.

My most succinct and most repeated lesson to the scouts was that real archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones. You don’t break through layers in search for specific shiny objects; you go through each layer meticulously and find everything you can. You don’t just grab that one thing that catches your eye; artifacts should be photographed as they appear, with a scale, and in their original positions before being removed. It should be noted that in our case we were searching by layer rather than by position, as the square meter in which we were digging was considered to be specific enough. You’re unlikely to be inundated with artifacts at all times; a lot (if not most) of archaeology is dirt. Get used to the idea that this in the material you will work will in the greatest abundance. Dirt is guaranteed, artifacts are not.


In the third and final stratum, we hit the jackpot!

Our one-meter-square plot was carefully delineated and I and a few of the dads removed the upper layer of sod, setting it aside to cover the dig area once we had finished for the day. The clumps of sod actually yielded our first find: a rusted horseshoe tangled among the grass roots.

We dug down into four inches of strata using trowels, which means we processed to a six-inch depth across the entire plot before moving on to a lower level. Using line levels, plumb bobs and measuring tape, we assured that we dug evenly.

The reason for digging down by strata is that you can get a general idea of time. Objects found closer to the surface are generally newer than those located further down. The soil was passed through a rocking sifting screen. The buckets of soil removed from each stratum had to be emptied through the screen before digging on a new stratum could commence.


Fragments of ceramic and broken glass.

The first (zero to four inches) and second (four to eight inches) strata yielded a horseshoe, a nail, a ceramic fragment, and a small, green, decorative plastic star.

In the third and final stratum (eight to 12 inches), we hit the jackpot! Barbed wire segments, pieces of metal mesh, nails, metal stakes, a metal file, unglazed pottery shards, fragments of ceramic, broken glass, wood fragments, small bones, bone fragments and animal teeth, oyster shell pieces, a plastic button, and a shell casing.

Everything was bagged according to which layer it came from and was taken by the Fort Bend Archaeological Society to be processed, identified and added to the data from the George Ranch. The scouts cleaned up the site, picked up any trash they might have brought with the, and washed up in the park’s facilities. Field work at times means that you’ll end your day with nothing but dirt-encrusted hands and the hope that tomorrow might reveal more. We were lucky that our final stratum of the day yielded so many interesting things, so I could send the Scouts off with a feeling of accomplishment.

Archaeology is fun! It forces you to go outside and encourages you to deliberately play in the dirt. It fosters patience and attention to detail. It encourages appreciation of small objects and moments and allows you to put together a picture of events that transpired in the past. It is science and humanities and storytelling all rolled into one. And playing (working) in the dirt at the George Ranch is a great way to spend a Saturday morning. Now this is my kind of science!

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dahlgren is a Curatorial Assistant at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, providing help in tracking and maintaining existing and incoming collections to be installed as exhibits or stored for future exposition.

What’s the perfect B-Day? Puppies, reading and the museum!

For her eighth birthday, Maddie Sanders told her mom she wanted nothing more than to read to dogs at the museum. It seems like an unlikely service, but the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land is the perfect fit for such a childhood wish.

Through the P.A.W.S. (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Reading Program, Maddie made two new canine friends, a German Shepherd named Jasmine, and Ranger, a Golden Retriever. From 10 a.m. to noon, she sat with the dogs and read to them along with her five-year-old sister Nola and her mother and father, Hope and Brian.


Maddie and Nola Sanders read to Ranger with the help of a volunteer at HMNS-SL.

“Ranger let the kids climb all over him. He was just a big pillow,” Hope said. “They were very well-trained, well-behaved dogs. As much as my kids love dogs, they were a little frightened at first. We don’t have one of our own. I have an allergy. But once they got acclimated to the situation, and they realized the dogs were well-trained and mild-mannered, the girls warmed up quickly.”

Hope learned about the P.A.W.S. Reading Program in the summer of 2014 when she was searching for activities for a Girl Scouts group field trip. She found information about the program on the HMNS-SL web site, but the logistics didn’t work out for the whole group. This time around, though, the program was great for two girls on a birthday adventure. She called up the museum to see if she could negotiate a birthday package, and Program Manager Kavita Self was happy to oblige.


Maddie read to Jasmine until she fell asleep for a mid-morning nap.

“Kavita is a joy to be around,” Hope said. “She loves her job. She told me to give her a heads-up before we got there so they’d be ready for us.”

The Sanders family hadn’t been to the Sugar Land museum in “quite some time,” Hope said, and when they got there, the expansion of the collection in the past couple of years astounded her.

“We were completely taken aback by how much it has to offer and how much it has grown,” Hope said. “They greeted us and gave us a welcome gift. We thought that was so kind. They showed us the new exhibits. Maddie is a lover of treehouses, so we played around there. They went above and beyond to make us feel special.”


Nola, Maddie’s sister, enjoyed her time in the TreeHouses exhibit at HMNS-SL.

The family saw geodes in the earth science exhibit and popped outside to watch butterflies in the butterfly garden. The only feature they missed out on was the paleontology exhibit, but there was plenty of entertainment for the whole family, let alone a single girl.

“I had no idea it was going to be anything greater than reading with dogs,” Hope said. “The people there knew her and kept telling her happy birthday. She loved the dogs so much. We had such a lovely time, and it all happened because the people there made it happen. We’re very appreciative.”

When they left the museum, the family stopped by Bernie’s Burger Bus in Bellaire for lunch, where they told everyone about their experience, Hope said.

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.


Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.


As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.


Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.


Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.


This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.


These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.


The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.


Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.


Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!


This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.


This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.


Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.


North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.


The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…