Archeological Finds at Meadowcroft Rock Shelter Turned Back the Clock on Humankind’s First Migration to the New World.
By Tom Imerito
Twelve thousand years ago a Native American hunter left a flint spear point at a campsite beneath a rock overhang along the banks of Cross Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River some 29 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. The three-inch by one-inch point was a re-sharpened remnant of a larger point that had been hand crafted by striking a piece of flint with another stone, a process called flint-knapping. In all likelihood, the point had been crafted by the hunter himself and would have been bound to a spear or arrow shaft with animal sinew or vegetable cordage. But the wear and tear of the hunt had necessitated re-sharpening the point to a shorter length, probably more than once. In its current diminutive state, the point was close to the end of its useful life. It may have been left in the carcass of the animal that served as that evening’s stone-age supper. It may have been misplaced. Perhaps it was discarded. Nobody knows for sure. Surely, nobody cared for 12,000 years. Eventually, however, it would push back the date of the first human migration to the New World by thousands of years.
Remembering Rural Life
In the interim, the rock overhang under which our prehistoric friend slept that evening continued to serve as a refuge from the elements for all who passed through the Cross Creek watershed, whether hunting, trapping, trading, fighting, prospecting or simply traversing the interior of the continent. In recent times, the site came to be known as Meadowcroft Rock Shelter. Located in Avella, PA, less than an hour from Pittsburgh, the rock shelter is part of The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Village, a collection of architectural and cultural artifacts representative of human life in North America through the ages. The village is home to a one-room schoolhouse from the 1840s, a fully functional blacksmith shop, a covered bridge, a nineteenth century wooden church, a museum of rural life, and a sixteenth century Indian village, complete with a palisade enclosure, wigwams, a sustainable garden and an atlatl throwing range. Originally, the Meadowcroft property was owned by two brothers, Albert and Delvin Miller whose family had farmed the property since the late 1700s. The pair held an abiding reverence for the preservation of rural American culture. Prior to Meadowcroft’s ascendancy to a position of archeological importance, they began to relocate and reassemble a collection of nineteenth-century buildings on the plateau above the Shelter. In 1993, the village merged with the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Today the Miller brothers’ collection constitutes much of Meadowcroft Village.
Best Practices in Archeology
But the charm of the village serves as an adornment to Meadowcroft’s main attraction, the Rock Shelter, which serves as a showcase for some of archeology’s most important discoveries in North America as well as a demonstration project for the best excavation and documentation practices in the world. No longer a mere refuge from the elements, no longer an archeological dig covered with plywood, two-by-fours and tar paper, today the shelter is protected by an exquisitely designed steel and wooden structure fitted sensitively and elegantly around the excavation. A wooden and steel stairway comprised of sixty- five low-rise steps ascends from the parking lot alongside Cross Creek, up the hillside to a wooden observation deck. There visitors stand out of the weather to view the excavation, the locations of ancient fire pits, mollusk shells, animal bones, the original steel survey stakes laying out the site’s grid, and innumerable white, button-like tags on the excavation’s vertical profiles marking precise coordinates within 11 distinct strata. A plank roof atop steel beams anchored in the Rock Shelter’s 28-foot limestone rear wall as tour guides explain the dig’s features in concert with automated ceiling lights that shine upon the exhibit of the moment. Completed in 2008, the $2 million structure was designed by Pfaffman and Associates and constructed by F.J. Busse Company, Inc., both of Pittsburgh.
Geology of the Shelter
Put simply, the Rock Shelter itself can be described as a hillside terrace beneath a large rock overhang about 30 feet above. The shelter’s openness combined with its orientation to the prevailing winds would have made it comfortable for humans by discouraging insects and dispersing campfire smoke. As with virtually all such geologic features, over time large pieces of the overhang broke off from time to time. Some tumbled into Cross Creek, others crashed into the floor of the shelter, making the roof smaller and reducing the size of the protected area. At least three calamitous roof falls have been identified by radio carbon dating of massive slabs of rock in and around the shelter. One massive 23,000 year-old slab rests in the bed of Cross Creek. Inside the shelter, a 12,000 year old piece, known as the Old Roof Fall measures roughly ten by eighteen feet across and ten feet deep. Another, known as the New Roof fall, occurred between 300 and 600 AD. Extending through the roof of the new site enclosure, the fifteen foot thick stone is partially buried in the earthen floor which still shows signs of deformation at the point of impact.
The shelter was formed millions of years ago, when Cross Creek flowed about forty-five feet higher than today. Over thousands of years the creek scoured a vein of soft sandstone away from its bank, leaving behind a harder layer of rock above which became the shelter’s roof. Fortuitously for the million-plus Meadowcroft artifacts, each day the roof rock sheds an infinitesimal quantity of rock dust from its surface. Through the shelter’s history, this continual “rain” of rock dust served to very gradually blanket anything left behind – seeds, husks, shells, fibers, bones, stone tools… and our prehistoric friend’s forgotten spear point. Thanks to the roof dust, the Meadowcroft artifacts remained safe and sound year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium.
It Started in a Woodchuck Hole
Then, on November 12, 1955, one of Meadowcroft’s owners, Albert Miller, who was both a gentleman farmer and an amateur archeologist, noticed several charred bone fragments at the mouth of a woodchuck hole near the rear wall of the shelter. His interest piqued, Miller excavated the hole to a depth of thirty inches where he found a stone knife. Recognizing the significance of his find and wary of looters, he kept his discovery to himself and began a search for a qualified archeologist. His search went on until 1972 when Professor James Adovasio came to the University of Pittsburgh to establish an archeological field school. Meadowcroft proved to be ideal. Albert Miller’s seventeen-year search for a professional archeologist to excavate the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in a manner commensurate with its promise was over.
Archeology Field School
Beginning in 1972, scores of students and researchers from around the world began coming to Meadowcroft each summer to teach, learn and undergo field training in Adovasio’s rigorous excavation and documentation techniques. As the diggers dug their way through what would become a sixteen-foot-deep excavation, they came upon retrospective evidence of thousands of years of human habitation. In the topmost strata metal beer cans and hypodermic syringes mixed among campfire ashes evinced the activities of modern day revelers. Deeper layers bore primitive cutting tools knapped by Native Americans from the glass shards of Revolutionary War gin bottles followed by thousands of charred small animal bones, nut shells, seed husks and the waste remnants of stone tool manufacture.
The First Major Find
Then in July of 1974, the long-forgotten spear point left or lost by our Stone Age hunter emerged from its ancient resting place. On one sunny morning, a Temple University archeology undergraduate named Joe Yedlowski, working in the deepest section of the dig, uncovered what appeared to be yet another one of many pieces of flake debitage, the waste material chipped from larger pieces of stone during the shaping of implements. Over the course of the morning, as Joe gingerly removed more soil, first with a six-inch mason’s trowel, then with a single-edged razor blade, and finally with a paintbrush, it became clear that the sides of the artifact were symmetrically curved to form a point and chipped to a sharp edge on both sides to form what archeologists call a bifaced projectile point, but most people would call an arrowhead.
As the point’s significance became more apparent, the dig began to buzz in anticipation of a momentous find. “By the time it was exposed we realized it was like nothing anybody had ever seen before,” Dr. Adovasio said. By late in the day, after several hours of mapping, documenting and photographing the point in its ancient state of repose, Joe gingerly lifted it from its resting place with his bare hands and handed it over to Adovasio, who after finding a place for its safe keeping, phoned the local watering hole to assess its preparedness for a celebration of momentous proportions. By all accounts, the bar was adequately provisioned, ten kegs of beer were consumed by the hundred-odd members of the digging crew, and the celebration was one not to be forgotten.
But elation soon gave way to controversy. The “Miller Lanceolate Projectile Point,” as the 1974 discovery came to be called in honor of the site’s discoverer, was but the first in a series of finds that would become a proverbial shot heard round the world of archeology. Although radio carbon dates indicated that the strata in which the Miller projectile point was found fell within the conventionally accepted timeframe of human habitation of the New World, subsequent finds at deeper levels pushed the date back by at least three thousand years, and possibly as many as six thousand. The oldest stone implement, a knife blade, was found in a layer that dated back 16,000 years. Even older was a 19,000 year-old piece of charred bark. The evidence suggested it was not a permanent settlement, but a transient campsite. Nonetheless, almost overnight Meadowcroft became the earliest known site of human habitation in the New World.
Not unlike many breakthrough discoveries in which new knowledge contradicts conventional wisdom, the finds precipitated a storm of disciplinary skirmishes within the archeology community that came to be known as The Clovis Wars. Prior to the Meadowcroft discoveries, the accepted date of the first human migration to North America had been set at 13,000 years ago by the discovery of a projectile point near the town of Clovis, New Mexico in 1936. The discovery of 16,000 year-old artifacts at Meadowcroft bumped the Clovis date out of first place on the Migration-to-the-Americas timeline and threw the field of archeology into a disciplinary tizzy.
The Clovis Wars were waged between two sets of professional archeologists: On one side were those whose minds were sufficiently open to allow new evidence to change their position about the date of human habitation of the New World; On the other, the Clovis Firsters had invested their careers in the Clovis date and were disinclined to change their view of when humans first came to the Americas. Some never changed their minds, despite increasing evidence of Meadowcroft’s validity.
“We weren’t looking for anything this different,” Adovasio said. “The Miller projectile point was the inadvertent lightening rod for all the flack about the site that emerged ever since. I underestimated the tenacity of people in terms of their retention of contrarian ideas. I didn’t think it would take a generation for them to alter their mindset.”
The Clovis Firsters had two basic arguments against Meadowcroft’s antiquity: First, they claimed the two-mile thick Laurentian ice sheet, which extended as far south as Moraine State Park, less than an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, would have made human habitation at Meadowcroft impossible sixteen thousand years ago and; Second, that the carbon samples must have been contaminated, which would have made the radio carbon dates wrong. However, the sheer wealth of Meadowcroft finds, which includes 20,000 human-made artifacts, 95,000 animal remains, and 1,400,000 plant remains, in combination with the exquisitely precise excavation and documentation techniques for which Adovasio has become renowned, gives the site uncommon status in the field of archeology. Additionally, 52 radio carbon dates, ranging from 30,000 years ago to the time of the Revolutionary War all correlate technically and chronologically with artifacts found at other sites. What is more, since the time of the initial Meadowcroft finds, numerous other discoveries of pre-Clovis habitation throughout the North and South America have corroborated the site’s age.
World renowned author and expert on the habitation of the New World, Dr. Brian Fagan, said, “Meadowcroft is the single most complex archaeological excavation I have ever seen. It’s a classic example of the very best in stratigraphic observation and meticulous recording in the field. The superb excavation methods give one great confidence in the important evidence for the first Americans found in the bottom layers of the site.”
In 1990, Adovasio accepted an offer from Mercyhurst College in Erie to establish a world class archeology program at the school. With the University of Pittsburgh’s blessing, he relocated the Meadowcroft collection and much of its staff to Mercyhurst where he began in earnest to build the new program. Today, he serves as Mercyhurst’s provost, dean of science and mathematics, and director of the Mercyhurst Archeological Institute. Active in archeological digs around the world, Adovasio travels to Meadowcroft several times a year to lecture visitors on the site’s history and its impact on the field of archeology.
Still associated with Adovasio today, Joe Yedlowski, who uncovered the Miller Projectile Point, directs Mercyhurst’s Summer Field Training Program in Prehistoric Archaeology.
Meadowcroft Village is open Wednesday through Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day; weekend afternoons in May, September and October; closed during the winter months. For details go to http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/ or call (724) 587-3412
Tom Imerito is president of Science Communications, a Pittsburgh technology communications consultancy. He can be reached at 412-892-9640 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Science Communications, please visit www.science-communications.com.
This article first ran in Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine. You can read it here: