Groundhog hole provides portal to prehistoric past

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AVELLA, Pa. – Albert and Delvin Miller intended to preserve history when they founded Meadowcroft Museum in rural Washington County, but the Meadowcroft property has preserved far more than 19th century rural life.

Surprising discovery. The Meadowcroft Rockshelter has evidence of life 16,000 years ago, making it the oldest human campsite in North America. Before this discovery, most experts did not think people lived on the continent that long ago.

Prehistoric hotel. Made of a natural rock overhang, the rockshelter housed prehistoric travelers during the autumn months.

Facing south for sunlight and ideally located near Cross Creek, the rockshelter was continually used longer than any other site on the continent. The oldest remains were buried 15 feet below the modern level.

More than 20,000 artifacts and 1 million animal remains have been found at the rockshelter. Archeologists also found a human skull fragment and human teeth. Travelers would not have buried their dead in the rockshelter, so human remains are rare.

Red marks on the rocks show where the inhabitants made fires and species now extinct in the area have been found in the rockshelter’s layers.

Groundhog hole. Albert Miller discovered the rockshelter in 1955 when he found flint in a groundhog hole. He dug deeper and found a tool made of flint. Then, he covered the hole and kept it a secret for 18 years.

In 1973, James Adovasio, then of the University of Pittsburgh, began professionally excavating the site. That dig lasted until 1978. Since then, there have been some smaller digs, but the archeologists intend to leave parts of the rockshelter untouched so future technology can provide even better information.

Public viewing. This is the first year the Meadowcroft Rockshelter has been open to the public. It can be viewed through Plexiglas and on monitor screens during regular business days or on special tours led by Adovasio.

David Scofield, museum director, said there are plans to build a permanent roof over the rockshelter and make it more accessible for visitors.

The rockshelter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Historic Landmark nominee and noted as a Commonwealth Treasure.

Rockshelter admission is $6.50 for adults and 3.50 for children. Combination museum/rockshetler admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children.

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