Meadowcroft Rockshelter (USA): Archaeologists recover damaged portion

Aaron Kendeall

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Jamie Badams carefully removes sediment from part of the water-damaged portion of the excavation site. The soil exposed to water is visible as the darker colored region.  Aaron Kendeall / Observer-Reporter

A team of archaeologists pored over the heavily stratified earth at the excavation site in Avella known as the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, hoping to repair damage done by recent flooding that tore through the area. And although rainwater washed away some artifacts from the site, many of the team members were excited to get their hands dirty on such an important piece of history.

“Getting to work here is a big deal,” said Michael Way, 22, one of three students asked by Mercyhurst University’s Archaeological Institute to take part in the dig. “You learn about it and go over how to excavate it, but a lot of us don’t get a chance to see it in the field.”

When heavy rains pounded the area July 10, water surged through an underground root cavity onto a delicately preserved portion of the site.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter is famous for the discoveries made at the site in the 1970s that changed the way historians thought about the peopling of the Americas. At 16,000 years old, the site is recognized the world over as containing the most ancient evidence of human life in North America. Artifacts unearthed there established Native Americans on the continent about 6,000 years earlier than previously believed.

Mercyhurst provost Dr. James Adovasio was lead archaeologist when it was first excavated in 1973 and currently oversees the historic site. He said groundwater eroded part of the east-facing wall where artifacts from between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago were buried. “A lot of things were happening in Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Valley during that time,” Adovasio said. “This gives us an opportunity to re-excavate the damaged areas with great precision.”

Most of the site – about two-thirds – was excavated in that landmark dig 40 years ago. But a small portion was left behind in order to give researchers a chance to dig in the future as technology improved.

Last month’s downpour affected virgin ground at the site. A few inches of dirt was washed away from the earthen wall, taking with it any artifacts therein. A few inches may not seem that devastating, but to such a heavily stratified site, the damage was not insignificant.

“Imagine it this way,” Adovasio said. “If you had a cake in front of you that had 17 or 18 layers of icing and cake, then icing and cake, and then water effectively smeared the front of the cake so that you couldn’t see the layers any more.”

Crews were at the site earlier this week attempting to return the precisely angled walls to their original layout. Mercyhurst University covers the cost for excavation at the site, while the Heinz History Center funds the rockshelter.

While the damage caused by the flood was unfortunate, there were some positives. For instance, any visitors to the site through at least the end of next week will get the opportunity to see a real-life excavation in progress. It also gave archaeologists involved a chance to pore over new artifacts using the most advanced technology possible. “The new information will be much better appreciated,” Adovasio said. “It will make alive brief, short-term moments in this site’s history.”

For more information on visiting the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum, visit its website at