Meadowcroft Has a Big Story to Tell

If it hadn’t been for a groundhog, the oldest site of human existence in North America still could be simply a place for teen-agers to hang out around a campfire.

Albert Miller stumbled upon a groundhog hole next to a campfire ring and under a rock overhang on his family farm 60 years ago this fall. On a hunch, he grabbed a shovel and screen and started digging. He noticed the groundhog already had excavated a piece of burnt bone and some flint flakes. Thirty inches down, he found an intact flint knife.

David Scofield, director of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village located on the former Miller farm near Avella, Pa., said Miller knew his find was significant, but he kept quiet for fear the site would be looted. He filled in the hole and spent the next 18 years looking for the right opportunity for professional excavation. It wasn’t until 1973 that the opportunity presented itself when Dr. James M. Adovasio began working at the University of Pittsburgh.

Fresh from a dig in Cypress, the archaeologist was looking for field work for his students and was put in touch with Miller through a mutual friend. The flint knife intrigued him. The summer of 1973, digging began at the groundhog hole, right beside the stone-ringed campfire complete with empty beer cans.

Adovasio sent artifacts to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for carbon dating. The results were unexpected – and to many, unbelievable: The artifacts proved the existence of humans in North America 16,000 years ago. Until then, the oldest remains dated back 13,000 years.

“When Meadowcroft was discovered, it kind of blew everyone away,” Scofield said. “It was quite controversial, and the controversy lasted many years. It wasn’t until the last 12 to 15 years that really the pendulum has swung the other way.” The change came after several other sites revealed signs of human life dating to the same time period, two in Virginia and one in South Carolina.

“For now, Meadowcroft still remains the oldest site of human use in North America. I expect that will change as new sites are discovered,” said Scofield, who has worked at Meadowcroft for 21 years and is responsible for opening the excavation site to the public and bringing it into the 21st century with a high-tech video and lighting features.

WHAT IS IT

The rockshelter boasts a 20-foot sandstone overhang, naturally carved as Cross Creek undercut it. It was attractive not only to 20th-century teens, but also to prehistoric hunters and gatherers, who hiked along the glacier-created creek and recognized the rockshelter as an ideal place to stop for a few nights – a couple weeks at the most – before moving on to follow their prey, Scofield said.

Adovasio and his teams found elk, rabbit, squirrel, fish and turtle remains that were butchered there with stone tools.

They also found a 12,000-year-old spear point, now known as the Miller Point.

In 2008, a wooden shelter was built into the rock to protect the excavation site, while the overhang itself sticks out over the roof.

The site is interpreted for visitors through an 18-minute video that is synced with a lighting system to shine on the specific areas being discussed.

For instance, an arc of light shines to indicate how far the rockshelter extended before the first roof collapse; another arc shows the overhang before the second roof collapse and another shows where it extends now, thus illustrating how far it has eroded over the milennia. Both former roof collapses are part of the site – large, sheer hunks of sandstone jutting up from where they landed.

On a recent private tour, Scofield used his laser pointer to show visitors the spot many feet below the ground where archeaologists discovered a deer was butchered 4,000 years ago. Moving his laser pointer up a few feet, he noted a deer was butchered there 400 years ago.

During the program, an overhead light shines alternately on the original groundhog hole, as well as the campfire ring, which upon excavation revealed it had been used for fires for 200 years.

Although several digs have taken place each decade since the 1970s, uncovering more facts, one third of the site has remained untouched to allow future archaeologists with more advanced technology to make discoveries, Scofield said.

WHAT ELSE

For visitors who don’t dig archeaology, Meadowcroft has much more to offer.

“We have a big story here,” Scofield said. As such, Meadowcroft focuses on a few time periods, based on how they represent major shifts in how humans lived and interacted with each other and the land.

The rockshelter and an indoor exhibit touch on the time of the Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers.

Outside in a grove of trees, visitors can experience life in a 16th-century Monongahela Indian village, with woven-reed-covered wigwams and a plot of land where they would have grown corn, beans and squash – known as the Three Sisters. The village represents life in this region prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

Here, visitors also can learn to throw an atlatl – a spear-launching mechanism, which was used prior to the invention of the bow and arrow. In fact, Meadowcroft is the site of a sanctioned World Atlatl Association competition. Competitors from around the eastern U.S. attend, but visitors who “never even heard the word atlatl before come and they get to throw it and even join the competition if they want to,” Scofield said. This year’s competition is June 20.

“The next big idea,” Scofield said, was trade with the European settlers, depicted in an 18th-century frontier trading post, with a trader’s lean-to and a log cabin that represents the type of housing Native Americans built after seeing the Europeans’ dwellings. The cabin has a door in the front and back, similar to a longhouse, and a fire in the center with a whole in the roof above it.

The final life-size area is the 19th-century Meadowcroft rural village, which Albert Miller and his younger brother, Delvin, actually founded in 1969, in an effort to preserve the past ways of life for local schoolchildren and residents. They named it Meadowcroft after the family farm, Bancroft, and Delvin?Miller’s farm, Meadow Lands.

The village is complete with a schoolhouse, a church, a blacksmith’s shed and a covered bridge, and interpreters are on hand to talk about and demonstrate what life was like then.

In addition, there are indoor exhibits, including one on the Paleo-Indians, one on Delvin Miller’s illustrious eight-decade harness-racing career (he founded The Meadows Race Track) and photography exhibits by Francis Frank, who lived nearby, and Albert Miller. The newest exhibit features five vehicles used in the region: a sleigh, a covered buggy, a hearse, a Conestoga wagon and a stage coach.

Sixty years after the groundhog hole discovery, Meadowcroft continues to educate visitors about the people who came before them. The late Albert Miller’s contributions to and passion for the preservation of local history live on, and he was inducted posthuously into the Washington County History Hall of Fame on Saturday, May 30.

DETAILS

Meadowcroft opened for the season on Wednesday, May 27, and its hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays through Labor Day.

Special events take place throughout the season, including several tours and lectures conducted by archaeologist Adovasio.

New this year is a round-robin baseball tournament featuring three teams that play in period uniforms using 1860s rules on Saturday, June 13.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Senator John Heinz History Center museum system and a Smithsonian affiliate. Children under 6 are admitted free. For admission details and directions, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org and click on the Meadowcroft tab or call 724-587-3412.