AVELLA, Pa. — A surprise reunion last weekend at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in western Washington County was a hard secret to keep.
From 1973 to 1978, then-University of Pittsburgh archaeologist James M. Adovasio did the famous archaeological dig at the rock shelter overlooking Cross Creek in Jefferson, three miles west of Avella, that produced two million human artifacts dating as far back as 16,000 years. It remains as perhaps the oldest site of human inhabitation yet discovered in North America.
The dig brought international headlines and rocked the field of archaeology so profoundly that some archaeologists to this day still claim the 12,500-year-old site near Clovis, New Mexico, was home to the continent’s earliest known settlers.
All of which provides a big buildup to the idea that it’s hard keeping a secret from a famous archaeologist whose career has involved digging up human secrets. Could a group of former students who worked on the dig, and now notable Ph.D.s in the field, pull off a surprise reunion with Adovasio at Meadowcroft more than four decades after the fact?
“Good grief,” Adovasio said just before giving his lecture when he spotted about 10 recognizable faces, many he hadn’t seen since the 1970s. He then leaned against a window for a moment of quiet emotion during his introduction, although he’d kiddingly deny it later.
Former students and colleagues, he said, occasionally show up for one of the four lectures he gives annually at Meadowcroft. But now in the audience sat David Clark, 69, an adjunct archaeology professor at Catholic University; Joel Gunn, 73, of the University of North Carolina Greensboro; and Keith Brown, 83, chairman of Pitt’s department of archeology at the time of the dig, among a half dozen other known faces.
“When you have more than one, you know something’s afoot,” Adovasio said afterward. “When you see people here who have traveled a long distance, you definitely know something’s afoot. But when you see Keith’s face …”
Clark had been plotting the reunion for years now that fellow participants are entering their senior years and some of the dig’s brightest stars are already gone.
“One thing is to look at where everyone went after Meadowcroft and what they did with themselves,” Clark said. “If you interview the folks who worked there that first year, you find out they pursued all walks of life and trails afterward.”
That audience included Dennis Stanford, who never worked the dig but directs the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s PaleoIndian/Paleoecology Program and supports the still controversial idea that the Meadowcroft Rockshelter is pre-Clovis, with the Clovis site still getting publicity as the earliest known site of human inhabitation in North America.
Stanford does argue that Paleo Indians, who settled in the East, originated in modern-day northern Spain. Adovasio argues they originated in current-day northeastern Asia.
“There’s good evidence that Meadowcroft is pre-Clovis and that’s the important thing,” Stanford said, describing Adovasio as “an excellent scholar whose excavations are probably some of the finest in the world. Everyone has to agree with that.”
In 1955, Albert Miller, the brother of harness-racing legend Delvin Miller, found a flint knife on their family farm by digging up a fresh groundhog hole near the rock shelter. Eighteen years later, Mr. Adovasio, now a professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie, thought the rock shelter would serve as a good field site for archaeology students, with few other expectations.
But discoveries from meticulously digging 6 to 8 feet deep into the rockshelter floor, often with razor blades, produced charcoal, bones and other remains extending back 16,000 years — more than 3,000 years earlier than Clovis discoveries. Results sparked disbelief and claims the dates were skewed backward by coal-dust contamination. It also spawned new theories about how prehistoric people populated North America.
Other East Coast digs now have found similarly aged remains, adding to acceptance of Meadowcroft as one of the earliest if not the earliest Paleo Indian sites on the continent. The fact the Smithsonian did the radiocarbon dating added confidence that the Meadowcroft timeline is accurate.
“There’s not a site that’s engaged more vitriolic debate — been more of a lightning rod — than Meadowcroft,” Adovasio has said previously.
Those attending the reunion celebrated Meadowcroft’s legacy with many tales from their dig days, with Brown, long retired from Pitt, explaining it in simple terms.
“The clincher for me was the systematic, step-by-step process of going down, down, down and finding older, older, older, with the oldest artifacts at the bottom,” he said. “Down is old. Up is new. The dates are too systematic to be capricious.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com