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The Big Dig, Washington Post Magazine, April 1, 2001 Part 1
[I tried to send this yesterday but it didn't get through. Today I have split it into two
parts. Let's see of that works.- Susan M]
This is in ref to Susan Grady's posting on the Washington Post articles:
For those of you who couldn't access the Washington Post Magazine article from April 1st,
I was able to get it, so here it is...
THE BIG DIG
James Adovasio knew the 12,000-year-old spear point he uncovered would change the theory
about who the first Americans were. He didn't realize it would take more than 25 years
April 1, 2001; Page W28
When Archeologist James Adovasio walked up to the spot known as Meadowcroft in 1973 he was
simply looking for a site to use as a summer field school for his students. The evidence
inside the crude stone fireplace -- beer cans, hash pipes, syringes -- showed that this
wooded hillside above a tributary of the Ohio River was a secluded place to stop. The
circle of stones sat almost 50 feet above a burbling creek, protected from the elements by
a rooflike projection of rock. He knew they would find Indian artifacts; in the mid-1950s
the farmer who owned the land had discovered small pieces of ceramic there, churned up by
a burrowing groundhog.
That summer Adovasio and his students arrived at the site, 30 miles southwest of
Pittsburgh, and started digging. First they took away the top layer of the fireplace, the
drug paraphernalia and the pop-top beer cans of the late 20th century. Below that were
more beer cans, only these were older, made of steel and required an opener. Below that
were beer bottles manufactured at the turn of the 19th century, and under that were
colonial glass bottles -- George Washington had once been through this area when he worked
as a surveyor. Then they found bottles that had been flaked into tools by Indians. There
were 20 levels of prehistoric fireplaces.
"At this literal spot people have been taking it easy, sitting around the fire for a
thousand years or more," says Adovasio. If Meadowcroft has always been a place for people
to relax, uncovering that fact was grueling and tedious. For several summers the students
worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Dirt was removed trowel by trowel, and sifted
through a fine screen to extract any signs of occupation. The rewards were thrilling:
tortoiseshell bowls, fragments of a ceramic jar, corncobs, and fishhooks made from bone.
There was also a breath-fragile edge of a woven basket -- it took two days of injecting it
with polyethylene glycol before it was stable enough even to pick up. They found material,
radiocarbon-dated from 1775, of the last visitations by a tribe, probably the Seneca. The
dating also showed that a people known as the Monongahela had stopped and made a fire and
butchered deer -- in 1320.
When the students and Adovasio returned to work each morning they found a fine cover of
sand deposited over what they had dug the day before. Grains of sandstone were perpetually
eroding from the overhanging rock, an ideal way to preserve the past. Eventually the
grains formed distinct strata, stacked one atop the other like layers of phyllo dough.
"Some of the layers were so thin a trowel blade was too thick, so we cut it with razors,"
Adovasio's plan was to dig until they hit bedrock. He wanted to show the students that
archaeology was not just about finding artifacts, but understanding the geology, the
botany and the sedimentology of a site. Archaeology is a process of systematic
destruction; once excavated, a site is forever altered. To retain its full value, it must
be carefully dug, mapped and recorded. Adovasio had come to feel that, since the 1960s,
when theorists took over his profession, the fine art of careful archaeological site
investigation had gotten lost. So Meadowcroft was to be his model for the ideal
As they got down about 11 feet, at a stratum that was formed about 11,000 years ago, he
was certain they would stop finding human traces. Adovasio, like generations of students,
had been taught that there were no humans on this continent before then, that it wasn't
until about 12,000 years ago that ancestors of all the native people who now inhabit the
Americas crossed the frozen Bering Strait. These pioneers left behind distinctive spear
points with grooves carved along the edge called fluting. The first one was found near
Clovis, N.M., in the early 1930s, and since then it had been canon that these Clovis
people were the first Americans.
But past the point where humans should have left their traces were more traces. It was
like one of those chests out of which magicians endlessly pull treasure. There were more
of the circular fire pits that could only have been created by people. There were flaked
stones, the debris of toolmaking. And at a level that dated to about 12,000 years ago,
there emerged from under the dirt a three-inch-long spear point called a lanceolate, of a
style not known before in the New World.
It was a staggering finding, suggesting a whole new way of looking at the ancient history
of the Americas, and Adovasio and his crew celebrated that night at a local bar. He named
the spear point the Miller lanceolate, in honor of Albert Miller, the landowner who had
supported the archaeological havoc being wreaked on his property. The Miller lanceolate
turned out to be just the beginning. Below that were more fire pits, dating back 13,000,
14,000 and 15,000 years. When the pre-Clovis radiocarbon dates came back from the
laboratory, Adovasio was stunned. "This is interesting, but it can't possibly be correct,"
he recalls thinking. But then date after date showed that the site was inhabited before
archaeological orthodoxy said it could have been. And the tools showed that the people who
made them were unfamiliar with Clovis style.
In 1976 Adovasio presented his findings at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Meadowcroft, he told the assembled scientists, represented "a span of 16,000 and perhaps
19,000 years of intermittent occupation. [It is] one of the earliest well-dated evidences
of man in the New World as well as the longest occupational sequence in the Western
Hemisphere." The reaction was quick, and hostile. One archaeologist came up to him after
his presentation and said flatly that regardless of any radiocarbon dating, Adovasio's
dates were just wrong. Adovasio, his methods and his conclusions came under relentless
attack. Because if he was right, if Meadowcroft's artifacts were that old, then everything
everybody knew for certain about the most pressing question in American archaeology -- who
were the first Americans -- was wrong.
We all have in our minds the image of a hyper-masculine conqueror who with a band of
brothers strode across glaciers to inhabit a new continent. James Adovasio, weightlifter,
motorcycle rider, seems descended from that very type. But he has found himself, quite by
accident, spending his career knocking down that image. His specialty is textiles
("women's work"), and he has analyzed virtually all the ancient basketry made in this
country and traveled the world to evaluate even prehistoric fabric. He believes our
ancestors survived more by trapping animals in nets woven by women than by hunting game
with spears wielded by men.
He never set out to find the oldest signs of habitation in North America; it was just the
result of a series of flukes. If Meadowcroft had been discovered by someone less dogged
and determinedly focused than Adovasio, chances are it would have remained one of the
dozens of intriguing, but ultimately discredited pre-Clovis sites that apostate
archaeologists have been looking for since the Clovis First theory became orthodoxy.
Adovasio, now 57, with graying hair and beard, is of average height, but has a
disproportionately broad torso, the result of a lifetime of lifting weights. His wardrobe
is so predictable -- black T-shirt, jeans and loafers -- that a joke birthday card made by
his students reads, "Do Depends come in black?" On this day he is sitting in his office at
Mercyhurst College, a small Catholic school in Erie, Pa., where since 1990 he has been a
professor of anthropology, archaeology and geology, and executive director of the
Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, which does everything from provide analyses in
forensic cases to consult on national and international excavations.
It's 5 p.m. and he is having a scotch -- the highest shelves ringing his many laboratories
are filled with a liquor store's worth of empties. He bears a passing resemblance to Burt
Reynolds (though Adovasio's hair is his own). He is voluble and confident. A colleague
likens him to "Jesse Ventura . . . that body build, that persona." Indeed, as with
Ventura, his confidence can verge on pugnacity. He says one of his critics belongs "in the
State Home for the Bewildered," another is a "blithering incompetent." And he dismisses
the assertions of the whole school of Clovis Firsters -- the ones who have dismissed his
findings -- as "the paroxysms of a paradigm in extremis . . . The idea of human beings
arriving in the New World [across the Bering Sea from Siberia], then sprinting to the tip
of South America, was ridiculous in the extreme."
Throughout American history there have been many theories about who the first Americans
were. Native Americans have their own creation stories. Thomas Jefferson hoped the Lewis
and Clark expedition would discover whether Indians were descended from a Lost Tribe of
Israel or a band of wandering Welshmen, according to historian Stephen Ambrose.
At the turn of the 19th century, scientists were sure humans had arrived in this
hemisphere no more than 5,000 years ago. Then in 1927, archaeologists excavating a site in
Folsom, N.M., discovered a spear point between the ribs of a type of bison that had been
extinct since around the end of the last ice age. Five years after that, near Clovis, an
even older point -- dated to about 11,200 years ago -- was found with the bones of a
woolly mammoth. Thus was the Clovis theory born.
For decades there was no reason to doubt it.
And then came Meadowcroft.
[to be continued in next posting...]
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