For 50 years, Eileen Johnson has been building a legacy – and not just her own.
Eileen Johnson still remembers the question that changed her life.
Johnson was sitting in the office of her doctoral adviser, Craig Black, at the University of Kansas. Black had been her master's adviser on her study of zooarcheology, a subfield of archeology that studies animal remains from archeological contexts. Now, as he explained, he was taking a new position as director of the Museum of Texas Tech University. During his interviews, Black heard a lot of concern about a nearby cultural heritage property and what could be done with it.
It was what we know today as Lubbock Lake Landmark, one of the most important archeological sites in North America because of its nearly complete record of human and animal activity on the Southern High Plains for almost 12,000 years.
“Well,” he asked Johnson with a grin, “what can you do with that?”
“I about fell off my chair,” she recalls. “Lubbock Lake, even at that time, 50 years ago, was very well known. And to be offered that kind of opportunity, what can you do?”
Very little work had been done at the site, but even that tiny glimpse showed how much more there was to uncover. So, her path clear, Johnson followed Black to Texas Tech University.
She thought she'd be here a few years at most.
She was wrong.
Eileen Johnson is now director of Lubbock Lake Landmark, chair of the university's Heritage and Museum Sciences graduate program, senior curator of anthropology at the museum and a Horn Distinguished Professor to boot. And as she celebrates 50 years of service to Texas Tech, her legacy and the Landmark's have become so intertwined, it's nearly impossible to discuss one without the other.
Thousands of years ago, the site was located in a canyon. A river, fed by underground springs, ran through it – and animals and people used its water for survival. But in the early 1930s the water dried up.
It was a problem for the young city of Lubbock, which had been founded in 1909 and, in 1923, had become the home of the new Texas Technological College. The city was growing day by day, and it needed more water sources. In an effort to revitalize the springs, the city began digging out the sediment the river had deposited there over the millennia – and as the sediment was removed, things that had been buried for thousands of years were suddenly unearthed.
That's how, in 1936, two high school students found a Folsom spear point. They took it to Curry Holden, who was the director of the West Texas Museum – now the Museum of Texas Tech.
Recognizing it for what it was, Holden began working to publicize and preserve the site. And that's why, 36 years later and more than 600 miles away, Johnson was already familiar enough with the site to be nearly floored by the chance to work there.
But, arriving in 1972, there was nothing to indicate the significance of where she found herself. The landscape was overgrown by mesquite trees, and part of the Landmark was flooded. The portion of the land that was clear had been eroded and scarred by habitual off-road usage.
A chain-link fence had been erected around a portion of the property, about 36 acres, but there simply hadn't been enough work done to determine whether that entire area contained artifacts. And outside the fence, the vast majority of the surrounding area remained unprotected. It had been more than a decade since the last fieldwork, and many people simply didn't know the land held special importance.
Johnson made it her goal to change that – and she has.
Over 50 years of continuous fieldwork, Johnson has proven how extensive the site actually is. That's why the amount of land now federally protected as the Lubbock Lake National Historic Landmark is more than 300 acres.
“It's actually bigger than that,” she says. “We know the record extends upstream and downstream, so it would be even larger than that, but that's the publicly owned land, and it probably will remain that size simply because of those kinds of constraints. But still, the fact that even that amount is going to be preserved into the future is really, really significant.”
Telling the Story
So, what changed Johnson's mind about her plans to stay in Lubbock only a few years? According to Deborah Bigness, manager of site operations for the Lubbock Lake Landmark, it was Johnson's first field season, during the summer of 1973.
“I asked her one time, when did she know? You know, in those very earliest years, when did she know – or have any concept – of what was really here and what it was going to take?” recalls Bigness, a former student of Johnson's who has now worked alongside her for two decades. “You know, because we've been digging here now for roughly 80 years, and we think we've excavated about 5% of what's really here in all that time – which I tell visitors has a lot more to do with how much there is, not how slow we are.
“She told me that by the end of that first summer, she knew enough to know that this would be a lifetime's worth of work – actually multiple lifetimes worth of work. And it will be.”
The scope of the project is certainly part of that. Those working at the Landmark have found the skeletal remains of many enormous animals that gathered near the river – mammoths, camels, horses, short-faced bears and bison. At one of the Landmark's regional research sites, they even found the front paw of a very large male American lion, a species Johnson admits she's been chasing for more than 40 years because it's notoriously elusive in the fossil record. She's still looking for the rest of him, by the way.
“He's her Ark of the Covenant,” laughs Sally Logue Post, the former senior associate director of Texas Tech's Marketing & Communications team. “But here's why the Landmark and the regional sites are so significant. It's not that we have a lion or that we have mammoths or short-faced bears; it's that we have traces of human life back 12,000 years and it's continuous to today. There are some sites that have human habitation older than that, but they don't have the continuum that is at the Landmark, and that's why it's so important.”
But for Johnson, the importance lies not just in the research – the educational aspect of Lubbock Lake Landmark is just as vital as the excavations.
“Our first field season was in 1973, but our first public programming – the first tours – were also in 1973,” Johnson notes. “I gave those tours; I established the public programming out here just as much as I established the research. And so, for 50 years, we have been translating and involving the public.”
Post, who first met Johnson 45 years ago, says that's something the Landmark director has in common with her predecessor.
“For Curry Holden, education and community involvement were very important to him,” Post says. “He was a bit of a mentor, I think, for Eileen – she thinks very highly of him, and he, I think, passed that on. That's why it's so important to her that the community has a place to come out there.”
Some activities happen at the Landmark, like the ever-popular Night Hikes. Other programs take the message to the community, like school events and appearances at the Lubbock Arts Festival. Through them all, the goal is to introduce as many people as possible to the facility's work and mission.
“You have to understand, when she came here in 1972, literally none of these public buildings were here,” Bigness emphasizes. “It was the land, the old dry reservoir and a few early excavation sites that had been done around the reservoir. Nothing else – no buildings, no public component at all. It was all built under her watch.”
Considering the updates Johnson has made to the physical site, it's perhaps funny that the Landmark team has been working for two decades now to transport Landmark visitors back in time.
“We have had a very active program since 2000 to bring the Landmark back to native prairie – to the best of our knowledge, what it would have looked like in the late 1880s and 1890s,” Johnson says. “So, now you can see the landscape.
“We have native grasses, native trees, and with that, we have seen an increase in the native animals. It doesn't take them long to understand that they're going to be protected here. Not only do we have a very healthy bird population, but we have a very healthy small mammal population. We try to manage that so we are maintaining and being good stewards of not just the land but everything that goes with it. While we want to preserve the archeological deposits, we also want to preserve the natural history deposits and the natural history that's out here today, because they go hand-in-hand.”
With so much research still to do, the site's preservation is key.
“We're just barely scratching the surface,” Johnson reiterates. “We have one of the best, most detailed records for 12,000 years of the natural history in this area, which reflects the biota, the plants, the animals; reflects climatic changes that were going on not just in this region, but nationally, and sometimes even globally. And that's basically an unparalleled record, which is a major reason the Lubbock Lake Landmark was recognized as a national historic landmark – on the national level, it is recognized as significant to the heritage of the nation.
“I have been given incredible opportunities here, but those kinds of opportunities are still here, and they're going to go forward long after I'm gone. There are probably lots of people wondering, ‘Are you still here?' At some point, I won't be – but the opportunities will. And I find that very exciting.”
Looking back over her 50-year career, Johnson says she's grateful to the university.
“I was left alone, in a sense,” she explains. “I was never told, ‘No, you can't do that.' I may have been told, ‘Now, we can't fund you,' but to me, those were two different things. I have always found a way to get around that kind of ‘no.' I was given the freedom to grow, to do, and I've never felt constrained. That's not what a lot of my colleagues across the country have experienced at their universities, and I think those kinds of opportunities are still here.”
Seizing those moments is important to Johnson, perhaps all the more so because of one she missed – one that still bothers her today.
“I had a phone call asking me to submit a manuscript to a book this person was putting together,” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘I just can't do it right now,' and I didn't do it. I kick myself to this day, and that was probably 40 years ago, because I obviously had much more time 40 years ago than I do now. The book is a very significant book, and the Landmark should have been represented in it. So, I spoke before I really thought about it, and I missed an opportunity I shouldn't have.”
Perhaps that's one reason Johnson is so enthusiastic about Post's newest project.
“The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library approached me to do an oral history with Eileen for the university's centennial, and I said, ‘Sure, no problem,'” Post recalls. “So, as we were ending the first of the two interviews, I said, ‘There really should be a book about the Landmark,' and she said, ‘Good, do it.'”
She is. The book is due out in 2026 for the 90th anniversary of the site's discovery.
A Landmark, Herself
Because Johnson has been so integral to the development of the Landmark, and it has been such a central theme in her life, it's nearly impossible to talk about one without the other.
“Eileen is extremely driven,” Post says. “She's just brilliant. She's so smart and so dedicated and so unwilling to take no for an answer that she has had the ability to work around those nos. When she first started out, there weren't that many women in the field, and darn sure there weren't very many women doing the fieldwork. I think her ability to work through all of those challenges, and to make the most of the opportunities, has made the Landmark, obviously, a landmark, but it has also made her incredibly important in the history of Texas Tech academics, as far as her success, her knowledge and her recognition by her peers.”
It can't have been easy to be the driving force shaping the Landmark over the last half century, but, as Bigness sees it, Johnson has several key qualities that made her perfect for the job.
“To do something like this, first of all, you have to understand it, but then the other really important thing is the desire to do it and, in some cases, find the many levels of it,” she says. “There are some people for whom the surface knowledge is enough. We have a lot of visitors who really want to delve into this subtopic or that subtopic. In fact, our audience is very split in a way. We have people who come here primarily because of the science, the archeology and the history it represents, but we also have another part of our audience who is here because of the Landmark itself, the land itself, and they're more interested in the natural world and spending time in the natural world or researching the natural world.
“Eileen is all three. One of the most remarkable things about her is, if you ask her, she will define herself as a quaternary scientist – that is the last roughly 2.6 million years, as a measure of geologic time. She's looking at the big picture. You know, you can't study the people without understanding their environment, you can't understand the environment unless you know about the animal life and the plant life, which were their resources for everything, from food, to shelter, to clothing, everything. And so, her approach to research is very holistic and that, in turn, feeds the education because there are so many possibilities in terms of topics we can explore.”
Through Johnson's holistic approach, she has certainly made her mark on the Landmark.
“Oh, it's immeasurable,” Post says. “I'm not sure what the Landmark would look like without her. I'm not sure it would be the site it is today.
“Without Eileen, I'm not sure the program would have grown as it did. A lot of that goes back to the champions she had, and the opportunities they created for her to move the program forward, but most of the research that's been done out there in the last 90 years has been since she's been there.”
Perhaps that is because, until Johnson, no one had made the Landmark their mission.
“This is her life's work,” Bigness stresses. “Very few people in the world today have the opportunity to do what she has done, which is settle at an early age on something that is so important and literally make it your life's work. Most of the rest of us don't do that or don't have the opportunity to do that.”
To Bigness, Johnson's dedication to the work is all the more reason to celebrate her as she marks 50 years at Texas Tech.
“I think it's particularly special because she, herself, is so self-effacing,” Bigness says. “She's not a person who seeks the spotlight. It's all about the research, all about the knowledge; it's not about her. And so, for those of us who work for her and admire her so greatly, it's nice to see other people say, ‘This is special, this is important,' and give her the kind of accolades we know she deserves.”
True to form, when asked about her legacy, Johnson says it's not about her.
“I think the legacy is the Landmark's, and the research and the outreach that is done here, and the foundation that has been laid. I look at the Landmark and I see two things: One, all we've accomplished, but two, all we still need to do. And what we still need to do will go on after I'm no longer here,” she says. “People do ask, ‘Are you thinking about retirement?' And I'm saying no. There's too much to do, there's too much I want to do – this is what I do. I want to be at the Landmark, I want to do research; that's what drives me. And so, if there is a legacy, it's that of research, of education and public outreach.
“It's been a building process, and a process of networking,” she adds. “I haven't done it by myself. There have been community supporters, city official supporters, county official supporters, university supporters. I recognize that and I'm grateful for that, because I couldn't have done it on my own and I recognize I did not. It takes that kind of team or group effort. And so, that's why I say the legacy is really the Landmark's. I just happened to be persistent, stubborn. I've lived long enough, and I have the push, the desire. I don't like taking no for an answer. To me, we can do it. We'll find a way.”