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Digging up the past

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

As University of Pittsburgh archaeologists worked at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in the 1970s, curious onlookers used to show up to catch a glimpse of the find that would alter scientists' view on the history of man in North America.

But for 30 years, there was no real public access to the archaeologically significant site.

And even though stairs were built and regular public tours began in 2003, nobody outside of the archaeologists have truly seen the dig and its 16,000 years of human life preserved.

A project that closed Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life for the summer will change all of that.

A new structure is being built over the dig at the site near Avella, Washington County, that will open Meadowcroft to more visitors and greater possibilities.

"The visitor experience is going to be much more dramatic, much more exciting, and we're going to be able to tell this story in an exciting way," says David R. Scofield, Meadowcroft's director.

That story, which began 16,000 years ago, only began to surface in 1955.

Albert Miller

The Meadowcroft land had been used as a family farm since 1795.

But it's transformation to a museum began on Nov. 12, 1955, when Albert Miller, whose family owned the farm, discovered a groundhog hole.

"He was very well-read and somewhat of an amateur archaeologist himself," Scofield says. "Albert, having grown up here, always suspected this was an area populated by native peoples."

Miller started digging where the groundhog had burrowed and quickly found burnt bone and flint flakes. About 30 inches from the surface, he found an intact flint knife.

"He covered up the groundhog hole and kept quiet about it because he was afraid it would attract looters," Scofield says.

Then Miller began a decades-long quest to find a professional archaeologist capable enough of uncovering the treasures he believed were under his property.

In the meantime, Miller and his family opened Meadowcroft Village -- a 19th century village that recreates life in rural America at that time in history.

In 1969, they established Meadowcroft Foundation as a nonprofit to own and operate the village. Still, the treasures of the rockshelter remained locked under the earth.

Field school

In 1972, Dr. James Adovasio joined the anthropology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

He was responsible for finding a field school in Western Pennsylvania where Pitt students and professors could work together in areas including archaeology, anthropology and geology.

In April 1973, Adovasio heard about Meadowcroft and decided to take a look.

"Albert Miller had long suspected as a child and later in life that Native Americans had used that particular location as a campsite," Adovasio says, "and he had been trying to interest people from various institution to work there for decades and for a variety of reasons that never happened."

Until Adovasio.

He and his crew arrived at the site in June 1973, hoping to find enough work to keep them busy, but not anticipating Meadowcroft would make history.

"We did not realize the depth of the deposits or its antiquity," says Adovasio, who is now executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeology Institute at Mercyhurst College in Erie. "... It was almost serendipitous. It was literally nothing anyone had anticipated."

The field school was held every year from 1973-78. But excavation and analysis has continued off and on for the past 34 years.

And what was found shocked the world.

16,000 years

In the 1930s, artifacts dating back 11,000 years were found near Clovis, New Mexico. The discovery led scientists to declare that the Clovis people were the first to populate North America.

That theory held strong until Meadowcroft. When radiocarbon dating tests came back in 1974 showing Meadowcroft artifacts dated back 16,000 years, a fierce debate began.

The dates became public just nine days before President Richard Nixon resigned, and, perhaps as a diversion from the troubles, the Washington Post put the Meadowcroft story on its front page.

The discovery made national and international headlines, but not everyone was excited. Scientists held tightly to the Clovis First model for decades.

"It's kind of a dwindling number of folk now," Adovasio says. "One of the things that I never fully appreciated was the slowness with which major paradigm change."

But other sites, including Monte Verde, Chile, and Cactus Hill, Va., have corroborated the Meadowcroft evidence. Those discoveries also dated back to the Meadowcroft period.

"Those are now so compelling in demonstrating that the Clovis model was incorrect; that (Meadowcroft) has actually played a pivotal role in how we view the world," Adovasio says.

Time capsule

Scofield calls Meadowcroft a "time capsule."

Some 10,000 artifacts were recovered -- from tools to pottery fragments. Some 950,000 animal remains were uncovered -- some showing signs of butchering. About 1.4 million plant remains also were preserved.

The preservation was a matter of nature. The overhanging rock ledge, which served as shelter for wandering peoples, was formed by the water of Cross Creek as it meandered back and forth throughout the valley.

The creek undercut the sandstone, which allowed a continual erosion of sand particles. The particles, shed from the rock overhang, combined with other rocks that had fallen, accumulated over the millennia and filled a trough in the shale bedrock below.

In effect, the sand and rock sealed evidence of the people who had been there.

Those people never lived at Meadowcroft. Instead, it was a campsite -- a place where people traveling along the creek bed could rest.

The shelter was high enough that the creek would not flood it and it also offered fresh water springs, making it an ideal place to stop.

The last artifacts in the rock date to 1776 -- less than 20 years before the land was known to become a farm.

Scofield says it's the continuity of the dates, its antiquity and the fact it records the oldest-known human population in the New World that have made it special.

"The truly amazing thing is that span of time represented here," Scofield says.

So special that its historical significance has been recognized.

Meadowcroft, which came under the auspices of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in 1993, is considered a Commonwealth Treasure, the highest designation among Pennsylvania historic sites.

It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, and in 2005 was named a National Historic Landmark.

The next step is to be named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Meadowcroft officials have submitted an application to the National Park Service in hopes of being added to its list of submissions to UNESCO.

Public access

In the meantime, the historical society has been busy making the improvements that will allow the rockshelter to be better viewed by the public.

Meadowcroft closed in June to allow $4 million in renovations to take place. Much of the money was set aside for infrastructure improvements.

More than $1 million will go the new roof over the rockshelter excavation site.

The old roof was built by the field archaeologists as they worked to protect the open excavation site more than 30 years ago. The roof sits far below the rock overhang and not high off the excavation site.

Pfaffman and Associations, an architecture firm in Pittsburgh, designed the new enclosed structure, which includes natural-looking wood laminate anchored into the large boulders the site offers.

Two observation platforms are being built where visitors can look into the site from underneath the roof.

"They'll be feeling like they're right in the excavation, really, in a spot where only the archaeologists have been so far," Scofield says.

Previously, the view most people got of the excavation site was through a plexiglass window.

Careful construction

But the work at the site hasn't been easy.

The dig sits on a 17-degree slope and workers have to be careful not to make vibrations that would crack the rock. As a precaution, the old roof is being kept intact and will only be removed once the new roof is in place.

John Paul Busse, whose company F.J. Busse Co. Inc. in Pittsburgh is the general contractor on the job, says he usually builds "square and level" buildings. Not in this case.

"This is probably the neatest job I could ever do in my life," Busse says.

Construction superintendent Joe Zielonka says it's like "working between a rock and a hard place."

"This is definitely a one-of-a-kind project," Zielonka says. "I'm going to come back when it's done."

Scofield expects Meadowcroft will reopen this fall for school groups. A grand opening celebration will be held in the spring.

The archaeologists also will return then to excavate the remaining third of the site that has been untouched. The public will be able to view the excavation process.

"It will not only be possible to explain what we're doing, but they'll be able to see it be done," Adovasio says.

He says the renovations will allow the "story of our antiquity as human beings" to be told very dramatically at Meadowcroft.

"I think that when it's finished and when the site's been brought up to its maximum viewability, there won't be anything like it that you can view anywhere in the country," Adovasio says.

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