Tree-Ring Curator Works to Manage Massive Research Collection

Hired this year, Pearce Paul Creasman is the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research's first curator in 72 years.
Nov. 12, 2009
Pearce Paul Creasman was hired this year as the first collections curator for the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research
Pearce Paul Creasman was hired this year as the first collections curator for the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research
Tree-rings can help researchers answer questions about archaeology, geology, ecology and more.
Tree-rings can help researchers answer questions about archaeology, geology, ecology and more.
Creasman hopes to eventually create an online database for the lab's collection.
Creasman hopes to eventually create an online database for the lab's collection.
Much of the UA's tree-ring collection is stored in Arizona Stadium.
Much of the UA's tree-ring collection is stored in Arizona Stadium.

Tucked away beneath the bleachers at Arizona Stadium, in a dark corridor unknown to most football game-goers, lies a rather unexpected collection – a collection of wood that's been accumulating for more than a century.

From large, disc-shaped slices to skinny pencil-shaped samples, the storage area is packed full of tree-ring specimens, part of a massive research collection held by the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Visitors to the hidden den may have to duck their heads to dodge the utility pipes pumping life into the stadium overhead as they glimpse a portion of the largest collection of tree-ring samples in the world.

Charged with managing the UA's collection, which is estimated at about 2 million pieces, is Pearce Paul Creasman, the laboratory's collections curator.

Hired this year to manage the collection, Creasman is the first curator in the lab's 72-year history.

Since the lab was established in 1937 under A.E. Douglass – former acting UA president and founder of the modern science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring research – various staff, faculty and students of the lab have shared responsibility for managing the collection, said lab director Tom Swetnam.

The lack of an official curator for the overwhelming collection – which occupies space in the Mathematics East building and an off-campus storage facility as well as Arizona Stadium – has also meant a degree of inconsistency and disorganization in the collection, which Creasman is preparing to tackle.  

"It's a huge job," Swetnam said. "We hold the world's largest collection of tree rings and it's an irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind resource of environmental and cultural history."

Creasman, also an associate research professor of dendrochronology, comes to the University from Blinn College in Texas, where he taught cultural anthropology. The 28-year-old received a bachelor's degree in anthropology and philosophy from the University of Maine in 2003 and a master's degree in anthropology from Texas A&M in 2005 before going on to pursue a doctorate in nautical archeology at Texas A&M, where his degree is pending defense of his doctoral dissertation.

Most of Creasman's research has focused on nautical archeology, which at first might seem to have little to do with the world of tree-ring research. But when you take into consideration the fact that up until 1850 boats were made of wood, Creasman's work with shipwrecks and shipwrecked materials in Egypt bears a clear connection with work being done in the UA lab, where researchers in multiple disciplines  look to wood to answer questions about archaeology, geology, ecology, climatology and more.

Creasman, who has worked extensively with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, also did a brief internship in the UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in 2007, although his early introduction to the lab and its collection couldn't have prepared him for the task he faces today.

Wood samples have been piling up for more than 100 years, since before the official creation of the lab, Swetnam said. And while most are labeled, a comprehensive catalog for what, or exactly how many, samples the UA has in its collection does not exist.

To get a better handle on matters, Creasman initially is mapping out where specimens are located on campus and is preparing to collect "institutional knowledge" about what's in the collection through videotaped interviews with the lab's staff, faculty and students.

That's no small undertaking when the UA's collection is more than twice the size of the two other largest collections in the world combined. Together, Columbia University and the University of Arkansas are thought to hold about half a million samples, Creasman said. 

Creasman said he expects his background in archeology to come in handy as he delves into the UA collection.

"This is an archaeological excavation. You've got to do a site map; you have to map everything where it is, and then you have to ask the right questions," he said.  "It's collecting that institutional knowledge before it disappears that's critical."

But the task doesn't end there.  

Creasman also intends to create a searchable database in the future to allow greater access to the collection for researchers across the globe. He also will work to raise funds to hire others to help him manage the collection.

With specimens dating back thousands of years, many of the samples held by the UA can no longer be found in nature because the tree or forest they were taken from no longer exists, making the collection an invaluable resource for scientists, Creasman said. The oldest sample in the UA collection was taken from a 10,000-year-old bristlecone pine. 

"If I can get it organized, both the records and physically, there are so many opportunities for new research and additional research here that I think the science will greatly benefit. The field as a whole will greatly benefit," he said.

Creasman was hired after the laboratory received a $9 million gift from Agnese N. Haury, the widow of one of the lab's founders, to construct a new building to house much of the collection and the tree-ring lab and its offices, which are currently located in Arizona Stadium. Part of the gift agreement called for the lab to hire a curator, Swetnam said.

Construction of the new building – to be named after Bryant Bannister, a former lab director and professor emeritus – is expected to begin in the middle of next year, east of the Mathematics East building, Swetnam said. Completion is scheduled for late 2011.