It all begins and ends at Old Main on the UA campus.
Arizona State Museum
The 10-foot-wide, 2-ton slab of wood will make its way across campus via flatbed truck on Oct. 19 to be displayed in the new Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building.
For years, Tucson schoolchildren marveled at the giant section of sequoia tree trunk that dominated the entry of the Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus.
At 10 feet in diameter, 2-feet thick and weighing approximately 2 tons, it was unlike anything they’d seen amidst the mesquite and creosote bush of their desert home.
The 2,000-year-old slab of wood served not only as a stunning example of nature’s beauty, but also as a window into the past.
“The big sequoia display piece is a bit like a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in a great museum,” said Tom Swetnam, director of the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. “Kids come in, and their jaw drops. It captures the imagination and gives a reality to the greatness of nature and natural history.”
The display was a popular sight on Tucson’s school field trip circuit for nearly five decades, until the early 1980s, when the Arizona State Museum relocated the bulk of its exhibits to a building across the street. At that time, the cumbersome sequoia was left behind in what is now primarily a museum storage, lab and office facility, typically closed to the public.
This week, the iconic piece will find a new home on campus in the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building, where it will go back on display for a new generation of children and families to enjoy.
This particular slice of sequoia has a long history at the University. It first arrived in Tucson via train from California in 1931, at a time when UA scientist A.E. Douglass, the founder of dendrochronology, or tree-ring research, was becoming well-known in the scientific community.
News of Douglass’s success using tree-ring dating to determine when Native American cliff dwellings of the Southwest were built had spread word-wide after publication in the December 1929 issue of National Geographic in an article titled “Secrets of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree Rings.”
His work with tree-rings had on several occasions taken him to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California to study some of the oldest and largest trees in the world – the giant sequoias, which can climb up to 250 feet high, reach 30 feet in diameter and live as long as 3,200 years.
While in California, Douglass befriended National Park Service Superintendent Col. John White, who helped him obtain a section of sequoia, cut by hand with a cross-cut saw, to be used for public education at the UA.
On Friday, that historic piece will journey across campus on the back of a flatbed truck to its new home in the Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Building, which is currently under construction and is expected to be completed in December.
The specimen – too large to fit through the doors of its current home in the Arizona State Museum’s south building – will be moved in pieces and will be reassembled and installed on the ground floor of the new building to serve as an interpretive exhibit, open to the public. The display will use the tree’s rings as a timeline to reference when key historic events took place.
“It has educational value besides just the ‘gee whiz’ aspect of it,” Swetnam said. “When you look at it you start thinking about time and history. Because it covers 2,000 years, it serves as a time reference for historical events. The timeline helps you visualize how things are spaced in time and the relative amounts of time between really important events.”
Named for a former director of the tree-ring lab, the Bryant Bannister building, with a tree-inspired architectural design, will house the lab’s offices, which are currently located beneath Arizona Stadium, as well as a massive collection of tree-ring samples collected over more than a century. The building’s ground floor will contain a variety of exhibits on tree-ring research, anchored by the permanent sequoia display. It is expected to open to the public in the spring.
Swetnam said he looks forward to introducing a new crop of visitors to the giant sequoia and the science of tree-ring dating.
“It’s coming back out into the public,” he said. “The next generation of Tucson kids and adults will now be able to enjoy this marvelous specimen.”
Arizona State Museum