Monday, May 11, 2009
Staking new ground at America's most-famous archeological site
AVELLA, Pa. – Albert Miller knew he was onto something when he began digging around a groundhog hole at the foot of an ancient rock ledge on his property decades ago and pulled out a few burned bones.
In no time, he unearthed an intact Indian flint knife without realizing his find in Independence Township, Pa. would someday lead to one of the most important archaeological finds in the United States.
Afraid of looters, he covered the pit and kept these discoveries to himself until he could find the right person to lead a professional dig at the site, said David Scofield, director of what since has become internationally known as the Meadowcroft rock shelter.
The dig would eventually last for three decades and produce evidence that travelers had been camping down under the shelter for at least 16,000 years, making it the oldest known evidence of human occupation in North America.
“This site just kept going down," Scofied said. “It just blew everyone away. No one had a clue it was this old.”
Among the other early items to be unearthed in 1973 by James Adovasio, a professor at the time at the University of Pittsburgh, were “a chronology of beer cans and drug paraphernalia” left behind by modern parties, Scofield said.
Since then, teams led by Adovasio have discovered more than 20,000 items that range from stone and bone tools to flint and pottery fragments. They also have found 956,000 animal remains that include those of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, as well as elk, turtle and rabbit. Add to that 4 million plant remains, with the most common of them being hackberry seeds.
The most significant artifact is a speartip that has been classified as the oldest such find in American and named the Miller lanceolate to honor Albert Miller.
Other archeologists with opposing theories about the arrival of mankind to North America have attempted to discredit the discoveries by Adovasio, who now teaches at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. One argued that the coal-rich ground in southwestern Pennsylvania skewed radio carbon tests that were used to determine the dates of his discoveries, Scofield said.
“It’s been a lightening rod for controversy. There were a lot of questions as there should be in science,” he said, adding that most people in the field have since come around to agreeing with Adovasio about Meadowcroft.
Scofield and his staff are working on a game plan to make the best use of this property that also is home to a village of relocated and restored buildings from the 1800s. They want to craft a tour that would first take visitors to the rock shelter to introduce them to the arrival of humans to the continent. From there, they would visit a new Indian village under construct before heading to a yet-to-be-developed sheep farm similar to those that dominated Washington County in the early 1800s. The tour would continue to the restored buildings before ending back at the shelter to discuss modern science and how it is used to evaluate the dig.
“The land is the common theme,” Scofield said. “We’re really building a vibrant tourism industry,” he said
More than $260 million was spent in this county on tourism in 2006, the last year the numbers were crunched. This type of spending is expected to skyrocket because of new gambling opportunities at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, as well as shopping at Tanger Outlets about 20 miles to the east in Washington, Pa., Scofield said.
(Captions: David Scofield, director of Meadowcroft rock shelter, top, discusses the depths archeologists have gone to unearth evidence of humans in North America. A replica of one of the huts covered in cattail mats that were used for shelter by Monongahela Indians in southwestern Pennsylvania is part of a new attraction at the tourism destination.)