Noted archaeologist gives lecture at Meadowcroft

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AVELLA – About 70 people packed a conference room at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella Saturday to hear Mercyhurst University provost Dr. James Adovasio give the first of four lectures presented this year by the renowned archaeologist at the site.


Longtime lead of the excavation project, Adovasio presented an insightful tour to a sold-out crowd of visitors – some of whom drove more than 11 hours for the event – on the history of the site that just a few decades ago turned the scientific world on its head. During an opening lecture, he explained why the natural occurring cathedral outcropping has provided a perfect temporary shelter for hunters traveling through the area for the past 16,000 years.


“This rockshelter,” Adovasio said, “faces south – which gives it a heated microenvironment. … The surface is level and the prevailing winds ventilate smoke.”


In 1973, the first professional excavation of the site occurred under the direction of a young Adovasio – “I was 29 years old when this all started” – while he was working for the University of Pittsburgh. Adovasio said the evidence recovered at the Meadowcroft site, considered one of the most carefully excavated sites in North America, showed humans had been living on the continent thousands of years earlier than conventional historians had believed.


Now perhaps the most well-known prehistoric site in North America, it wasn’t that long ago when Adovasio and a team of researchers climbed the slope leading to the escarpment for the first time. Even then, they had the feeling the site would be nothing less than interesting.


The campfire pit at the foot of the enclosure had “aluminum beer cans from the site prep team,” Adovasio said. Below that were “older steel beer cans, then beer bottles, very early beer bottles and then early colonial gin containers, many of which had been repurposed by later North American Indians that used the site.”


It turns out fishing camps haven’t changed that much over the years.


Although the cavern cut into the sandstone above Cross Creek in Avella has never been the site of a permanent village, it provided the perfect rustic lodge for hunters, fishermen and gatherers passing through the area in the spring and summer.


“You could live indefinitely in Cross Creek now,” Adovasio said, “and the vegetation and fauna is negligible to what it was prehistorically.”


Prior to the Meadowcroft discoveries, researchers believed the ancestors of the people that would later be known as Native Americans crossed the Atlantic Ocean over a frozen landmass covering the Bering Strait roughly 10,000 years ago. Adovasio said evidence of life in the region millennia earlier meant that over the past few decades the academic community has had to re-evaluate its previous notions of the way in which North America was peopled.


After Adovasio walked visitors through the archaeological site, most recently studied just a year ago, some spectators approached the professor in order to chat and ask for autographs.


Melanie Cook, a medical illustrator from Iowa City, Iowa, drove about 700 miles with her daughter Carly Mead and friend Lisa Dvorak to hear Adovasio speak.


“Oh yes, it was worth it,” Cook said. “It’s just great to actually see this site. I’ve had the book for years.”


Sheila Adams, a historical interpreter at the museum, said visits from people like Cook made her wonder why more people from Pittsburgh did not travel to the museum.


“I think when something is in your backyard, you tend to take it for granted,” Adams said. “But when you learn about it, you really see how important it is.”


Adovasio will speak at Meadowcroft Sept. 14, Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. For reservation information, email Frances Skariot at frskariot@heinzhistorycenter.org.


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