Ryan Murray explains the geological history of northeastern Burnet County on the banks of South Rocky Creek near his home in Briggs. The creek reveals countless layers of limestone that harbor the fossils of long-extinct sea creatures. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey
The radical geology of the Texas Hill Country makes it one of the best artifact and fossil hunting territories in North America, according to Briggs resident Ryan Murray. An amateur artifact hunter, Murray has been collecting archaeological and paleontological treasures since he was a kid, traipsing the southwestern United States with his grandfathers.
He and his family now live on the crumbling limestone of northeastern Burnet County, once a sea floor that covered Central Texas during the time of the Tyrannosaurus rex around 65 million years ago, which is young by the region’s standards. The classic pink granite of the Hill Country represents the remains of the Llano Uplift, a geological area with rocks estimated to be 1.5 billion years old. That includes Enchanted Rock between Llano and Fredericksburg and Granite Mountain in Marble Falls, two granite batholiths connected to each other underground.
“You have some of the oldest rocks in North America right here, and you have some of the oldest artifacts in North America right here,” Murray said.
During one fossil-hunting expedition close to home, Murray found the skeleton of a 700-year-old bison embedded in the banks of South Rocky Creek. He excavated the remains and donated them to The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls. Rockie now has its own room in the museum at 2001 Broadway.
Murray’s interest in ancient artifacts started at a young age.
“I always had a shoebox full of arrowheads in my room that I liked,” he said. “Here I am, 40 years later, and nothing’s changed.”
His ingrained passion for the ancient and natural world was instilled in him by his grandfathers.
“One of my grandfathers was a science teacher in the 1950s and the other was a prospector in the Monument Valley area in Arizona,” he said.
Murray was born near Houston and raised in Fort Worth. Growing up, he got into fishing, camping, and hunting, which presented great opportunities for fossil and artifact digging. While spending time with his grandfathers, Murray was able to explore the Navajo Nation, collect rocks, fossils, and arrowheads, and learn about Earth’s natural history.
He became a Red Raider at Texas Tech University prior to moving to Austin for work. He spent nearly 20 years in the healthcare industry before the pandemic inspired him and his family to live full time on their property in Briggs and take up ranching.
As Murray honed his knowledge and collection by reaching out to mentors, researching, and joining regional rockhound groups, he discovered that some of the oldest evidence of human civilization in North America is just a stone’s throw from his ranch.
The Gault Site, near Florence, has produced hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back 15,000-plus years. For reference, the Roman Coliseum was built nearly 2,000 years ago, the pyramids of Egypt over 4,000 years ago, and Stonehenge about 5,000 years ago.
During this reporter’s visit, Murray arranged a portion of his ancient treasures on his front porch, offering a glimpse into the past that he personally brought to the present, though not all from his ranch. His collection includes a massive ammonite, an extinct mollusk believed to have first appeared about 450 million years ago, that he dug up in the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Murray also has two pieces of obsidian he found in Texas, where it does not naturally occur. According to his research, it likely came from either New Mexico or Idaho as part of the trading networks of ancient peoples.
He rattled two strange nubs in his palm, the worn-down remains of a long-extinct shark that once swam across Texas.
Many of the human artifacts found in Central Texas are older than you’d think, said Murray, looking over a small portion of his vast collection. The Comanche arrived in Central Texas in the 1700s, roughly 300 years ago. Many of the arrowheads and stone tools found in the region are 2,000-plus years old and from cultures that are almost unknown to history and only referred to by the specific techniques they used to create their tools.
“We have no idea what their names were,” he said. “We don’t really know what they called themselves because it was so far back in history.”
Murray shared some key insights for stone sleuthing. He recommended exploring places where the earth has been churned up or worn away. Think construction sites, highways, or the mack daddy of them all: waterways.
The banks of a creek or river can sometimes reveal thousands or even millions of years of sediment. Among these layers, you can find everything from ancient seashells to dinosaur bones.
Waterways don’t just reveal old fossils; they usually contain remnants of tools and treasures of native peoples. Rivers and creeks were, and still are, important resources, meaning a creek could hold thousands of years of stone tools left behind by generations of people who used them in their daily lives.
To the untrained eye, a fossil or artifact might look like any other rock, but with a little curiosity, knowledge, and luck, you can find a piece of history in your own backyard.
“You never know what is right underneath your feet,” Murray said.
Tips for fossil and artifact hunters
Look for organic shapes among the stones. Spirals, cones, ovals, and other rounded objects could be fossilized remains.
Focus on one small spot for a period of time rather than quickly covering a large area. Take the time to observe your immediate surroundings and look for shapes or colors that stand out.
Look for dark colors. Black could mean several things, like the presence of ancient ash, obsidian, or carbon, all of which can lead to interesting finds.
Know the rules. Make sure you have permission from landowners and find out local and state rules that govern an area before you remove artifacts or fossils.
Research the area beforehand. Read up on where you’re exploring so you know what to look for. Check out forums, books, and field guides or even ask an old-timer for guidance.