July storm damages 16,000 years of history in Washington County

| Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 12:12 a.m.

A team of researchers and students from Mercyhurst University on Thursday climbed into a limestone cave atop a Washington County hillside to begin the process of cleaning up 16,000 years of history sullied by a single day of heavy rains.

“This isn't something you ever really get to see,” James M. Adovasio, provost and director of the Erie university's Archaeological Institute, said of the excavation work. Forty years ago, he unearthed evidence there chronicling the life of some of North America's earliest known human inhabitants.

“1973. June 7,” Adovasio said, recalling the date like a wedding anniversary.

Although his Mercyhurst team visits Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village a few times a year to perform routine maintenance, fixing the damage from the July storm will take at least a week, possibly two, Adovasio said.

But the Avella site, operated by the Sen. John Heinz History Center, will remain open and visitors will be able to observe the excavation, said manager David Scofield.

“This is a great opportunity for visitors to see a work in process,” he said.

Rain penetrated the ground above the site and traveled down a dead, hollowed tree root. A small stream of water punched through the rock wall and flowed across cuts made in previous digs showing layers of activity at the site from 3,000 to 10,000 years ago, around the time Native Americans began to plant, make ceramics and live in villages year-round instead of constantly being on the move to find food.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter was an annual stopping point in the search for plants, fish and animals that inhabited the region, including elk and cougar that no longer live there, Adovasio said.

The rain damaged archaeological evidence from about 70 visits by Native Americans over a 7,000-year period.

It is impossible to know from which periods the displaced materials came, but the area will be restored through painstaking work done by hand, Adovasio said.

“What makes this site so unique is that you have 16,000 years of those visits,” he said.

Cleaning up the mess took a day. The rest of the team's time will be spent recutting the wall and documenting newly recovered artifacts.

A fiber-optic camera will be snaked up the hole in an effort to locate where the root comes out on the other side to prevent future damage.

A storm in 2011 damaged the same 4-foot by 7-foot section.

“It may well have been the same source,” Adovasio said. “But this is several degrees worse.”

A half-dozen storms caused worse damage in the 1980s and 1990s, he said.

Each time, researchers are able to better understand the period as part of the restoration process, and students gain valuable field experience, Adovasio said.

“This isn't the kind of exercise you look for,” he said, “but you take advantage of it when it happens.”

A third of the archaeological site remains intact to allow future researchers to make discoveries with more advanced technology and techniques.

“The best you could do in 1973 isn't the best in 2013, nor will it be the best in 2023,” Adovasio said.

Then at the University of Pittsburgh, Adovasio said he first chose to excavate Meadowcroft because the rock overhang looked like a good place to camp.

He expected to find artifacts dating back maybe 3,000 years, such as those found in other places throughout Western Pennsylvania.

“This was a perfect place, as it turns out,” Adovasio said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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