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Dr. Eileen Johnson: Leaving a Legacy

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Dr. Eileen Johnson: Leaving a Legacy


In the late 1800s, cattlemen and settlers entered Lubbock County along trails that followed the Brazos River. Near a point where the Brazos splits into two separate channels, Blackwater Draw and Yellow House Draw, a 12-acre spring-fed lake, situated in the sharp bend of the Yellow House, was a welcome site for thirsty travelers.

Spanish explorers, from the 1540s, named the site “Punta de Agua,” or Place of Water. Four hundred years later, archaeologists from Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) found evidence that placed ancient humans and extinct animals in this exact spot dating back thousands of years.

In the 1920s, locals enjoyed the Lubbock Lake for picnics, hiking, and swimming, but by the 1930s the lake had disappeared. Lubbock city official used Depression-era federal funding (WPA) to dredge the river channel in the hopes of replenishing the lake. First by hand, and then by machines, the laborers were not successful at reclaiming the spring-waters. However, archeologists from the College, soon discovered ancient artifacts in the trench walls.

Within each layer of the exposed strata, tools, bones, charcoal, and flint arrow points were found including a 12,000-year-old Folsom point. Curry Holden, of the Museum of Texas Technological College, was the first scientist to excavate the site in 1938. Holden, who led many regional archeological investigations, discovered artifacts that would propel animals and plants back millions of years.

Excavations at Lubbock Lake Landmark in July 1951 along diatomite layer |Photo by Glen Evans courtesy Texas Memorial Museum Texas Beyond History

The site received a 1971 designation on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1977, was declared a National Historic Landmark. The research center became the Lubbock Lake National Historic Landmark, or just the “Landmark.”

Today, visitors to the Landmark, will see that Holden’s “hole in the canyon wall” has been transformed into amazing research, and visitor-friendly, campus covering 336 acres. Many credit the transformation of the Landmark to Eileen Johnson, Holden’s graduate assistant who came to Texas Tech from the University of Kansas in 1972 to complete her doctoral studies. Johnson was soon selected as the new Director of the Lubbock Lake Site. 

Dr Johnson comparing a real found object to its 3d printed replica | Courtesy Lubbock Lake Landmark

Johnson stated that she was practically “helped up off the floor” when the archaeological site was offered to her. She was thrilled to lead the reorganization of the 1939 archeological excavation, or “dig,” just north of the Tech campus because the site held clues to how ancient humans lived on the vast Plains of North America. Tours began in 1974 with huge army tents used for public programming.

Even after fifty years of her celebrated leadership at the Landmark, Johnson is quick to redirect the Landmark’s legacy. “The landmark would not be here today without Curry Holden. He’s probably one of the greatest visionaries I ever knew. He was very committed to community involvement, preservation, education, interpretation, and research. Those principles and concepts have guided me. I fully believe in all of them, then and now.”

In 1993 the Lubbock Lake Landmark hosted the Texas Archeological Society TAS Field School Geoarcheologist Vance Holliday points out new evidence to TAS Field School Director Eileen Johnson Photo by E Mott Davis Courtesy Texas Beyond History

Johnson described herself in 1972 as just being “another person in time…when I came…it was thought you will be here 3-4 years and then gone.” However, the magnitude of her work at the Landmark is not lost to Deborah Bigness, Site Manager and long-time friend and colleague to Johnson, who says, “Everything you see here today she built.”

The Landmarks Robert A Nash Interpretive Center | Courtesy Lubbock Lake Landmark

Things have certainly changed in fifty years. Now gigantic replicas of the extinct mammals welcome you to the Nash Interpretive Center to see how scientists work in a “Dig” and to experience a land from the past with colorful murals and artifacts. Landmark trails (approx. 2 miles) guide you to where ancient lions, tigers, camels, horses, bison, and mammoths once roamed. Monthly programs for all ages are organized by the staff. A Summer Field School attracts scholars and volunteers from around the world.  

Johnson continues to be honored as the driving force behind the international recognition garnered by the archeological site and natural history preserve. Vance T. Holliday, Koffler Professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology in Tucson was kind enough to share his thoughts on working with Eileen Johnson with Authentic Texas.

“Eileen’s impact on my career as a mentor, colleague, and friend is hard to overstate. I heard about the Lubbock Lake Project starting up…it sounded very interesting, so I volunteered to help. Eileen and her team were doing exactly the sorts of things I was interested in learning more about, including archaeology, geology, working with bones (zooarchaeology), and trying to reconstruct the environments of the archaeological past.”

“The next year (1974), Eileen offered me an assistantship if I wanted to pursue an M.A. and work on the project…it was a career- and life-changing move. Classwork at Tech, along with my work at Lubbock Lake, honed my interests in geology and soils along with museum work that led to a PhD in Geology (U of Colorado, 1982) based on field studies at Lubbock Lake.”

“Eileen and I worked together on a number of publications dealing with archaeology (especially the older “Paleoindian” record), geology, and past environments at the site and across the region. From my first arrival until today she has been a strong supporter of my work and my career, providing every opportunity she could. I also learned more about paleontology, the archaeological analysis of bone, museum curation, and general professionalism. I owe Eileen more that I can ever repay.”

When asked to reflect on her career and significant moments, Johnson was very candid. “I don’t think of myself as an archeologist at all. I’m a quaternary research scientist. Another term would be a paleo biologist. I’m interested in the entire quaternary – the last 2.6 million years. That’s a lot of time before people.” 

“I just published a paper on a locality in the area that is the beginning of the Pleistocene. Early Pleistocene localities in this country are as scarce as hen’s teeth. It’s very significant – all the animals we are dealing with are extinct. We have the ancestor to the modern coyote, sister lineages to the modern puma, and 18-20 different species of birds most of which are going to prove to be extinct. It’s an amazing locality.” 

Dr Eileen Johnson building upon previous pioneering work began the Lubbock Lake research program in 1972 with the first field season in 1973 The Landmark will celebrate 50 years of continuous field research in 2023

“I’m highly vested in this region. To me the heritage of this region deserves people that will be highly invested in it and actually be here to contribute to various aspects. I’ve spent so much time here and yet I’ve only scratched the surface.”

“We found the American lion [in Garza County]. The American lion is native to North America, but related to the African lion…we know they were on the Plains in the late Pleistocene. We did find some remains – not the complete skeleton. That was really high on my list to chase down. We are revamping the Ice Age gallery in the Texas Tech Museum, and it will have an American Lion skeleton in it, and this time next year the second one will be here at the Landmark.”

Reflecting back, Johnson is still excited to expand the scope of the Landmark. “I don’t have any plans to retire. I’ve still got things to do.” Dr. Eileen Johnson, and her friendly staff, invite you to visit the Lubbock Lake Landmark (Closed on Mondays) to experience this one-of-a-kind archaeological research center, one of the most important places in the world!

A unit of the Museum of Texas Tech University, the Lubbock Lake Landmark is an archaeological and natural history preserve at the northern edge of the city of Lubbock, Texas. The Landmark contains evidence of almost 12,000 years of occupation by ancient peoples on the Southern High Plains. The Landmark welcomes visitors of all ages year round. The Landmark is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated National Historic and State Archeological Landmark.

Visit Lubbock

Lubbock Lake Landmark
2401 Landmark Dr.
Lubbock, TX 79415
(806) 742-1116

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