By Julian Smith
In June of this year, James Adovasio of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, returned to a site he has been investigating since the end of the Vietnam War. The Meadowcroft Rockshelter is a natural sandstone overhang above Cross Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River about thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Visitors to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village watched Adovasio and a small team repair exposed sediment layers that had dried out and collapsed. The repair work involved reexcavating and remapping profiles, which allowed the team to examine the remains of charcoal fires and collect small mammal bones and fragments of pottery. For those who couldn’t make it in person, a YouTube livestream followed the project.
Meadowcroft isn’t a large site—the overhang is about forty-three feet high and covers about 700 square feet—and this round of excavations only took about three weeks. But this dig was just the latest chapter in a nearly fifty-year study of one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas. Since he started working at Meadowcroft, Adovasio has found evidence of human occupation going back as much as 19,000 years, thousands of years earlier than people were once thought to have arrived in the New World. These results drew an unusual level of scrutiny and controversy from the start, although as the decades passed they became a key part of a paradigm shift in our understanding of the human history of the Americas.
Archaeology at Meadowcroft started with a chance discovery. In 1955, local farmer and historian Albert Miller was examining a woodchuck hole on his property when he found pieces of ceramics and an intact flint knife. Fortunately for science, he chose to cover up the hole and look for a professional archaeologist to investigate the site. It took eighteen years, but he eventually connected with Adovasio, then an archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who started excavations with a field school in 1973.
This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!