Meadowcroft revisited: Adovasio to re-excavate storm-damaged historic landmark

Jim Adovasio
Forty years ago, a young Jim Adovasio made a discovery that turned the scientific world on its head. He excavated beneath an overhanging cliff face situated on the north bank of Cross Creek, a small tributary of the Ohio River in Avella, Pa., that history would later record as the earliest well-dated archaeological site in North America, dating back 16,000 years.

Today, at 69, Adovasio is about to embark on a real-life déjà vu as he returns to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter to re-excavate a storm-ravaged section of this National Historic Landmark, which provides a rare glimpse into the lives of the first people to arrive in the New World. According to various news agencies, the National Weather Service reported damaging rain, as much as two inches an hour, throughout parts of the Pittsburgh region on July 19. Meadowcroft was a casualty of that storm.

As director of the Mercyhurst University Archaeological Institute, Adovasio is assembling a team of faculty and students to leave for Meadowcroft on Wednesday, July 31, to assess the damage and commence a re-excavation strategy for the damaged portion of the site.

The excavation protocols that he introduced at Meadowcroft are still considered state-of-the-art and the site is widely regarded as one of the most carefully excavated in North America. Adovasio has been teaching those same protocols at Mercyhurst since he came to the Erie, Pa., university in 1990 from the University of Pittsburgh. Although he has continued his archaeological research at Meadowcroft while at Mercyhurst and delivered hundreds of lectures about the historic site, both on site and in the classroom, he has not undertaken an excavation of this magnitude there since the early 1990s.

“There’s an old saying that you can’t put your foot in the same river twice, but every time I go back, it is like doing that,” Adovasio said. “Once you are inside the place immersed in the work, it’s the mid-70s all over again.”

The section of Meadowcroft damaged by flood waters is estimated at 6 feet vertically by 4.5 feet horizontally. Of the recent storm, Adovasio explained, “The visitors’ center that now covers the site is designed to deflect direct rain, but this rain somehow entered the sediment pile outside the building and moved along an old root channel of a preexisting tree and emerged on the east profile of the site, which is nothing we could ever have anticipated.”

The damaged area contains roughly 70-75 “visitation moments” from the Archaic and Early Woodland natives dating ca-8000 to 1000 BC. Because the deposits consist of living surfaces that are literally stacked one upon another, the Mercyhurst team will need to employ exceptionally fine-grained and rigorous excavation protocols.

“Part of the difficulty of this excavation will be separating those individual visits from one another, so our students will have a very unique and challenging experience,” Adovasio said.

So, is this an opportunity for new discoveries or more a lost-and-found mission?

“Certainly, we expect to get more information about the time periods represented in the damaged area, but who knows what shape that might take,” Adovasio said. “Since previous excavations yielded 1.4 million plant remains and 956,000 animal bones, it’s not likely that we will recover new species of plant or animal, but it is possible. And yet, even when you get more of the same, you are still adding enhancement to the resolution of the image of the past and the opportunity to paint that picture more clearly.”

Another upside to an otherwise regrettable situation is that Adovasio and his team will be able to use new data collecting practices and employ new archaeological recovery techniques that afford the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute to stay at the cutting edge of excavating protocols.

Adovasio estimated that, at minimum, the dig will require two weeks of intensive work, including weekends. The team needs to start as soon as possible, he said, because it is far easier to excavate wet, soft sediment than dry ground.

Making the trip with him are project archaeologist Allen Quinn, processing lab director Annie Marjenin, 2013 alumnus Mike Way, and students Jamie Badams, Jessica Higley and Michelle Farley.

“This is an amazing experience for our students,” said Marjenin. “For me, personally, it is a great opportunity to hone my skills at such a well-known site and one that was so instrumental in determining human occupation in the New World.”

Prior to Adovasio’s work at Meadowcroft, scientists believed the ancestors of Native Americans crossed the Atlantic Ocean over a frozen landmass covering the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago. Adovasio said evidence of population in eastern North America thousands of years earlier meant that the academic community has had to reevaluate its previous notions of how and when North America was peopled.

“This excavation is happening at what has become a tipping point in the history of American archaeology, where the majority of the archaeological community recognizes the Clovis-first model no longer works and Meadowcroft and Monte Verde have played a pivotal role in that transformation,” Adovasio said. “To return to one of the places that made this all happen puts a punctuation point on this changing paradigm in a very unique way.”





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