The Zuhl Museum -
Man working on Monasaurus skull, which is related to the monitor lizard.

What began as a curiosity for Joan and Herb Zuhl became a passion, then a business, and later a donation benefitting both residents and visitors to Las Cruces.

The Zuhl collection of petrified wood and fossils at New Mexico State University

On vacation in 1970, the Zuhls saw a group of people digging in an Arizona field. Curious, they stopped and watched them remove a petrified log. Said Herb, “I was just amazed. They were uncovering a log buried for millions of years.”

The landowner offered to rent the Zuhls a backhoe to see what they could uncover. After contacting a monument company near their home in New York, they dug out a log requiring a flatbed trailer to haul to stonecutter. The log was sawed into slabs — “Like a loaf of French bread,” Herb said — and polished.

Joan Zuhl, who died in 2016, was an artist, and the couple found the petrified wood so “dazzling,” they opened a gallery on Madison Avenue and began selling to interior designers in New York City.This Monasaurus healsaurus is a 68-inch-long fossil from the Late Cretaceous Period.

The pieces made wonderful wall decorations and unique tabletops. Some designers even used slabs as stair treads. That, of course, demanded more petrified logs, so they traveled each summer to Montana, California, Oregon, and Arizona, anywhere they could find them. They also began attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, setting up a booth to sell to people from across the country and around the world — Europe, Japan, and even Australia.

In time, they decided to sell their business and move to Las Cruces, bringing with them their collection. Herb said, “We had saved all the special pieces.”

Now, they wanted to donate them, but the recipient had to promise to display them. They found interest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, donating about 300 specimens to them. The balance of the collection came to New Mexico State University. The school dedicated part of the Alumni and Visitors Center to display the collection and later expanded the space to show more of it. A significant part of the collection was given to the school for its new library, named in the Zuhl’s honor.

this collection is a walk back in time.

Most of the items in the collection were living trees and animals hundreds of millions of years ago.

Petrified logs are rock, not wood. The process requires special conditions and time — lots of time. A tree may have washed into a shallow sea and been covered with sediment to a depth bacteria could not act on it. The wood carried a negative charge, while minerals in the soil had a positive charge.

When it rained, water dissolved minerals and carried them into the ground, where they were attracted to the negatively charged wood. The minerals replaced the tree, cell by cell. Over millions of years, the tree was replicated in stone. Iron oxide imparted a red or orange color and uranium a yellow hue. Copper, cobalt and chromium tinted the tree blue, and manganese purple. Carbon made its presence known with black.

Petrified logs are rock, not wood

You’ll find samples of all colors in the collection, in slabs large and small, as well as in polished lengths from a couple feet to six feet in length. In front of the museum is a 30,000-pound, nine-foot- long sequoia log, showing what petrified wood, this one mostly Head of a crinoid, a filter-feeding animal that lived millions of years ago.agate, looks like before it is cut and polished.

One large log from Oregon, with well-defined tree rings and bark, was processed into 17 slabs, six feet in diameter. The Smithsonian in Washington got one. One went to the Houston museum, one to a Seattle museum, five to museums in Germany, and another five to Japanese museums. What is unique about this tree from Stinking Water Creek in eastern Oregon is it was not buried by water-borne sediment but covered by molten lava 12 million years ago. Its rich gold and brown color is the result of iron and carbon minerals.

But there’s more than stone trees in the Zuhl collection. The couple became fascinated by the fossils of the period and began purchasing them. They, too, are on display. You’ll find trilobites, which lived from the Cambrian Period (520 million years ago) until the Permian Period 250 million years later, when they disappeared during a major extinction event.

There is a four-foot-long crinoid that appears to be a plant but actually is a filter-feeding animal, like a sea feather. There’s Ichthyosaurus, a fast-swimming marine reptile, an ancestor of today’s octopus and squid from the Jurassic Era. And Keichousaurus, a fish-eating, sea-land reptile that lived much like today’s seal.

There are dragonflies and other insects found in a limestone quarry in Solnhofen, Germany, an unusual nest of fossilized eggs laid by an Oviraptor dinosaur, which may have had feathers and may be ancestor to today’s birds, leg bones of a sauropod that was 20 times heavier than an elephant, and the skull of a Monasaurus, a Cretaceous reptile related to today’s monitor lizard.

What started as an event that peaked the curiosity of a couple just enjoying the desert climate of Arizona became a life-time passion. The Zuhl Collection at NMSU will be Herb and Joan’s legacy for anyone as curious as they were — and they won’t have to go to the trouble of renting a backhoe to see it.

What started as an event that peaked the curiosity of a couple just enjoying the desert climate of Arizona became a life-time passion.

The Zuhl Museum at 755 College Drive, adjacent to the NMSU police station, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and every second Saturday of the month. There is no admission fee and plenty of free parking in front of the building. Call 575-646-4714 for more information and to confirm hours of operation.

Written and photography by BUD RUSSO.
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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