Over the last three-quarters of a century, The University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research has helped scientists unlock mysteries in areas as diverse as archaeology, ecology, geology and most recently in climate change. A “transformational gift” from a longtime UA donor will now propel the mission of the lab, the oldest facility of its kind in the world, well into the future.
The gift comes on the eve of the lab’s 70th anniversary and, ironically, through a connection to those earliest days at the University. Agnese N. Haury, the widow of one of the lab’s founders, has donated $9 million to construct a new building to archive the lab’s collection of more than two million samples, a centuries-old chronology of scientific information stored in wood.
The building will be named for Bryant Bannister, the lab’s director emeritus. The design and location have yet to be worked out, but officials said the archive building would likely be three to four stories tall, with about 15,000 square feet of space. The collection will be stored in climate-controlled rooms with compressible shelving on rails to maximize storage space. The plans also may include an interpretive area for the public.
Most of the samples are cores taken from the bases of trees and are about the thickness of a pencil. The largest specimens are cross sections of giant sequoias, like the 6-ton section on display at the Arizona State Museum. Lab Director Thomas Swetnam calls it the world’s largest collection of ancient timbers. The annual growth rings in each sample not only mark time, they also offer clues to ancient climate patterns.
The new archive will allow scientists from a range of disciplines access to materials that still offer answers to questions about ecology, water supplies, forest fires and other environmental issues. Swetnam said archiving the collection means researchers will have opportunities to extract new data using techniques that have yet to be developed.
“Each ring is like a time capsule, like a great library,” Swetnam said. “And only some of the volumes have been read, and only some of the pages in the volumes have been read. So for the future, having an archive, which we’re going to build now with this great gift from Agnese Haury, is going to allow us to organize the collection and make it accessible to the world to come and use this wood for future studies.”
Officially, the lab began in 1937 when it was formally established by the Arizona Board of Regents. In actuality, Swetnam said, it began much earlier. Andrew Ellicott Douglass, the founder of the Tree-Ring Lab and Steward Observatory, had been an assistant to Percival Lowell, namesake of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Douglass and Lowell parted company in 1901 after the two sparred publicly about whether a civilization had once inhabited Mars. Douglass subsequently came to the UA in 1906 and landed a job as an assistant professor of physics and geography.
The first dedicated space for Douglass’ lab came in 1931 in the UA’s baseball stadium, at a site now occupied by the UA Main Library. In 1937, the lab gained both formal recognition by the Arizona Board of Regents and temporary space in the west side of Arizona Stadium, where it remains today.
Emil W. Haury, then a graduate archaeology student, joined Douglass as an assistant in 1929 and spent a year cataloging Douglass’ growing sample collection. A year later he helped Douglass teach the first class in tree-ring dating at the UA.
Douglass and Haury also bridged a significant gap in the archaeological record of the Southwest. Douglass had established an unbroken tree-ring chronology dating back to A.D. 1260. He also had a “floating” chronology of nearly six centuries that, by itself, could not be pinned to a specific start or end date.
Haury found the missing link that connected the two chronologies – a piece of burned timber excavated from a pueblo near Show Low, Ariz. The result gave archaeologists the critical tool they needed to pinpoint the occupation dates for nearly all of the prehistoric pueblos in the region, including Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
Douglass never left the UA. He was a professor, dean and even acting president for four months, and continued working at his lab, part time in his later years, until he died in 1962 at age 94.
Haury went on to become one of the preeminent figures in Southwest archaeology, head of the UA anthropology department and director of the Arizona State Museum. He also mentored three of Douglass’s successors, including Bannister.
After his first wife, Hulda, died in 1987, Haury married Agnese Nelms Lindley in 1990. The two had been friends since the mid-1960s, when she worked on Haury’s excavations at Snaketown, an extensive Hohokam archaeological site near Casa Grande, Ariz. Emil Haury died in 1992 at age 88.
Agnese Haury’s own remarkable career spans 60 years. She graduated with degrees from Bryn Mawr College and Wheaton College, and visited, worked and lived in more than 60 countries. She worked for, among others, the United Nations and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
During her five years with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she traveled to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Libya and Burma on special assignment to survey international assistance programs and wrote extensively about her work.
She established the Agnese N. Lindley Foundation in 1981 to benefit dozens of projects in education, science, arts, civil and human rights and the environment, and has been exceptionally generous to the UA.
Her gifts have supported the Agnese Haury Institute for Court Interpretation, the Agnese and Emil Haury Southwest Native Nations Pottery Vault, located in the Arizona State Museum, the Agnese and Emil W. Haury Endowed Chair in Archaeological Dendrochronology and the Agnese Nelms Haury Graduate Fellowship in Archaeological Dendrochronology, to name only a few.
One important legacy of the lab is that several other tree-ring labs have sprouted up elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world, including Russia, where A.E. Douglass is revered as a major scientist. Many of the scientists in those labs also trained at the UA.
Swetnam also said he expects the UA’s tree-ring lab to remain at the scientific forefront in a number of areas.
"I hope we keep our interdisciplinary mix," he said. "We’re going to keep working in archaeology but expand to other parts of the world. Climate change is increasingly important, as are issues of water. So, we’re going to keep on being involved in the big changes occurring on the planet and how those affect people.
"The great thing about tree rings is that we bring all of these interesting threads of science together."