The Wilson-Leonard Site in Williamson County, Texas contained one of the oldest and most complete human burials ever found in North America.
If you've ever been to Texas and driven up I-35 through the Austin-Waco corridor, you know that Williamson County is a beautiful place.
Located just close enough to the Hill Country to get some of the beautiful, rolling landscape, it's a place where you find sleepy small towns, Texas-size blue skies and roadside smokehouses that all sell the "world's best" beef jerky. And, if you're lucky enough to find yourself passing through during the spring, you'll experience the surreal blankets of bluebonnets that so many country singers mention in their songs.
However, aside from boasting a good share of the postcard-perfect images associated with the Lone Star State, Williamson County is also home to a 2.5-acre parcel of land that contains archaeological evidence from every prehistoric time period in Texas. Located in a deeply stratified area in the county's southwestern Brushy Creek Valley, the Wilson-Leonard Site contained one of the oldest and most complete human burials ever found in North America.
If you've never heard of it, think back (or just Google) to the early 1980s when archaeologists from the University of Texas found the remains of an 11,000-year old female who they nicknamed Leanne (or the “Leanderthal Lady” to play off the name of a nearby city, Leander). That all happened at the Wilson-Leonard Site.
Now the place that brought us such fascinating discoveries is at the center of a controversy that could have repercussions for archeological resources across the country.
In 1991, the site was donated to the Archaeological Conservancy by the Wilson Land & Cattle Company and Will R. Wilson, Sr. The donation was subject to a reverter clause that included several conditions requiring the property to be used "predominantly to provide an archaeological laboratory for intermittent research excavations, restoration of Indian artifacts and habitats, exhibition of artifacts and restored habitats to the public, or for any other archaeological purpose."
Fourteen years later, in 2005, much of Williamson County was facing intense pressure from development and skyrocketing land values. The original grantor of the gift, Will R. Wilson, Sr., signed a reverter deed purporting to re-convey the property to his son, claiming that the Archaeological Conservancy had failed to use the property for ongoing active excavation. Though the Archaeological Conservancy filed suit to reestablish its title to the property, a bench trial ruled in favor of Mr. Wilson - a decision which could impact the future conveyance of property for preservation and/or archaeological purposes.
As a result, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with the Society for American Archaeology, the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Archaeological Institute of America, represented pro bono by the law firm of Andrews & Kurth in Austin, stepped in to support an appeal by the Archaeological Conservancy, filing an amicus curiae brief earlier this month. The brief used extensive research to make the case that protection and preservation in place is itself an important “archaeological purpose” – perhaps the most important in the long-run because of the fact that developments in science and technology are continually expanding our ability to interpret archaeological sites and artifacts. Once a site has been excavated, the in-place information it contains is no longer available for on-site study. Deferring excavation for a decade or two will inevitably increase our ability to understand and interpret the archaeological remains and the prehistoric culture they represent.
If the trial court's decision is upheld and the Wilson-Leonard donation is revoked, land donations across the country could be in jeopardy, especially those held by the Archaeological Conservancy. Please stay tuned to PreservationNation.org as we continue to monitor this case and the wounding precedent it could set, both deep in the heart of Texas and beyond.
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Jason Lloyd Clement is the director of community outreach at the National Trust, which is really just a fancy way of saying he’s a professional place lover. For him, any day that involves a bike, a camera, and a gritty historic neighborhood is basically the best day ever.