Digging Up the Past

Article excerpt

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. …