Meet Our Lecturers: An Interview with James Adovasio
March 5, 2008
Director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, James Adovasio specializes in prehistory, technology and material analysis, as well as the archaeology of North America, Mesoamerica, and the former Soviet Union. Adovasio recently discussed his research, including his excavation of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, with AIA Programs Assistant Deanna Baker.
How did you become interested in archaeology?
Archaeology is the only career in which I ever had any interest. I was essentially "programmed" to be an archaeologist by my mother who was an historian. I was taught to read by my mother using geology, paleontology, and archaeology books before I ever entered kindergarten. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I knew where I was going to be going to undergraduate school. In short, my career path was inevitable.
During your career, you have specialized in the analysis of materials like basketry, textiles and cordage. What got you interested in these materials? What have been some of the challenges of studying them?
When I arrived at the University of Utah for the pursuit of my Ph.D. degree, scholars at that institution had just completed excavations at Hogup Cave in the western part of the state. The site produced a large number of perishable artifacts for which there was no in-house analyst. I was essentially informed by Jesse D. Jennings, the late and renowned "Dark Lord of the Desert" that I would either develop an interest in these kinds of materials or pursue my career at another institution. Needless to say, I came to know and love baskets, strings and cords ever since.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter has been a topic of hot debate over the years. What have been some of the challenges of working at Meadowcroft and publishing your finds? Did you anticipate such a debate when the first dates for Meadowcroft came back, indicating occupation that pre-dated the Clovis-first theory? What aided in getting scholars to accept these dates?
I never anticipated that Meadowcroft would become the epicenter of a three-decade long debate. Because of the extensive amount of funding and support available for this enterprise as well as the high degree of competence of the collaborating scientists, there never really were any insurmountable challenges for excavating and documenting cultural or ecological remains at the site. Obviously, there was also no problem in publishing the results, particularly since the excavations there were considered, even by critics of the early dates, to represent then, and for that matter now, the state-of-the-art in cave and rockshelter excavation. I believe the acceptance of the antiquity of the site is a function not only of the extreme precision used in recovering and contextualizing material from that location but also by the existence now of more than a few other localities which predate the Clovis horizon. The bulk of the evidence now clearly supports an earlier-than-Clovis human presence in the Americas.
What was it like discovering the lithic in one of your lower levels at Meadowcroft and then realizing that it predated the 11,500 B.P. date for the colonization of North America?
I recall the exact circumstances of the discovery of some of the early lithic material at Meadowcroft and despite the fact that we did not have dates available immediately for those early occupations we anticipated that they might prove to be relatively old. When the early dates did come back in August of 1974, we immediately retired to one of the seven saloons then flourishing in Avella, Pennsylvania, and expended no little capital in a well-attended celebration.
Meadowcroft was close to the edge of the glacier that covered North America during the Pleistocene. Would life have been hard for the inhabitants living so close to a glacier? Have you been able to reconstruct the environment around Meadowcroft?
Meadowcroft was never physically close to the edge of the glacier during the Pleistocene. This is a common misconception. While the ice did reach within 47 km. [29.2 miles] 22,000 years ago, by the time the first humans occupied the site it had already retreated to the vicinity of Erie. The environment around Meadowcroft was not radically dissimilar at the time of the earliest occupation to Holocene environments with a mixture of coniferous/boreal plants as well as deciduous elements. This has been documented at numerous other locations south of the glacial front and so it no longer presents the anomaly that it once appeared to be.
You are well known for your work at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, but you have also done work in the Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Israel. Can you speak briefly about your fieldwork in these areas?
Despite the fact that we have worked off and on at Meadowcroft and the Cross Creek drainage for the past 37 years, I have also been involved in excavations in a wide array of other areas, specifically including 27 of the United States and a series of foreign countries, including Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Israel, and others. In Ukraine I was involved in the excavation of mammoth bone houses at Mezhirich and in the Czech Republic in the analysis of materials recovered from Pavlovian sites like Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov. In Israel, I was involved in archaeological and geological data recovery in Ceasarea. At various times I have worked on the analysis of perishable materials from Central and South America as well as Europe and Asia.
You have also done work re-evaluating the role of women in prehistory. What made you decide to re-examine the material to attempt to find women's roles? What were you able to find about their roles during this time period? Do you think it would be beneficial to go back to other sites and reconsider what you have called the "andro-litho-centric" view of the past?
When one is involved in the analysis of basketry and textile materials, objects which are normally associated with the labor of women, it is only natural to have a different perspective of the past than one which is derived from the analysis of stone tools. I really never decided to re-examine perishable materials specifically from an idea of ascertaining women's roles, since the perishable materials themselves were direct indicators of those roles. I think one of the benefits of examining nondurable technology is the insights that this type of technology provides you not only into the gender roles of the past but also into issues of subsistence and adaptation which are rather radically different than those derived from what one might call an andro-litho-centric view of the past.
What led you to found the Cultural Resource Management Program at the University of Pittsburgh?
The Cultural Resource Management Program at the University of Pittsburgh was founded to provide a venue, specifically a public archaeology/contract archaeology venue to train students in state-of-the-art excavations. We have always used, both at Pitt and now at Mercyhurst, contract projects as a means of furthering specific research objectives and simultaneously conveying the protocols of data recovery analysis and documentation to students who participated in those projects. Without this research and teaching orientation, there would have been no point either in founding the Cultural Resource Management Program at Pitt or the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute here at Mercyhurst.
You now work at Mercyhurst and have built the first comprehensive archaeological research program in the tri-state area. Why did you feel it was important to do this? What opportunities will this provide that were previously unavailable?
The Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute was founded essentially to enable myself, my staff, and any students who might attend the institution to have the opportunity of pursuing high-resolution archaeological, geoarchaeogical, and forensic anthropological topics with the same level of intensity and engagement that one could in a much larger institution but, obviously, in a much smaller and more user-friendly context. We have among the best facilities for this in the entire country in institutions of any size and, consequently, students who come here have the opportunity of being exposed to some of the very finest logistic capabilities, faculty, and research opportunities that they would encounter anywhere but, once again, in a small and convivial research atmosphere. Given the enormous amount of support that we have received from the institution, it has proven possible to do all these things and to continue to enhance our capabilities to provide the highest levels of education possible.