August 30, 2009

Clovis site in Time Team America

Time Team America: The Topper Site

By K. Kris HirstThe Topper Site, an extensive and important Clovis site (likely ca 12,500-12,900 bp, no dates yet from the Clovis occupation at Topper) with a controversial preclovis occupation (bracketed between ca 15,000-50,000 bp) in South Carolina, is the focus in the new Time Team America program airing July 15, 2009. The opportunity to see Topper should make many archaeologists and others interested in the original colonization of the Americas eager to see this program.

The Time Team at Topper

Most of the excavation action by the Time Team America crew takes place in the sandy deposits of the Clovis site, including an attempt by team geophysicist Meg Watters to identify the Clovis deposit in unexcavated areas by using ground penetrating radar, which does eventually seem to be successful.

Program Notes

The program does a nice job of explaining the several ongoing current issues in Clovis and preclovis archaeology, including the "black mat theory" (aka "extraterrestrial impact theory") of how Clovis may have been ended by a cometary explosion over the Canadian ice shield (described by theory proponent Allen West) and three of the four prevailing theories about how the peopling of North America may have occurred (described by Time Team archaeologist Adrien Hannus). I'd have preferred that they spend more time on the more-likely theory of Pacific coastal migration and less time on the less-likely Solutrean connection; but that's just me.
The official PBS website:

Topper, South CarolinaDeep in the woodlands near the Savannah River in South Carolina lies a remarkable archaeological site that may challenge our understanding of America's first inhabitants. Named after the local man who discovered it, the Topper site was once the location of an ancient quarry, a kind of prehistoric workshop, where people came thousands of years ago to make weapons and stone tools. For archaeologists, the site is providing a wealth of material left behind by the Clovis people. Known for their distinctive stone spear points, the Clovis people are commonly thought to be the first to inhabit North America around 13,000 years ago. But evidence being found at sites like Topper is challenging the long-held theories about when people first came to the American continent. Did they follow big game across a land bridge from Siberia to North America 13,000 years ago or did they arrive much, much earlier and by a different route? Time Team America visited the Topper site to join the hunt for evidence that could shed light on these questions.Why We Went ThereThe Topper site is an excellent and undisputed example of a rich Clovis-era quarry site. This makes it a great case study for scientific inquiry—not only for researchers seeking to learn more about the Paleoindian people, but also for those with new theories about when people first arrived in the Americas and what happened to them. Time Team was invited to the site by Al Goodyear from the South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology. The Topper site is abuzz with researchers in the summer months and Time Team joined the students, volunteers and scientists from several disciplines, all braving the bugs and the brutal heat in order to get a closer look at America's earliest people.Historical BackgroundLocated alongside the lovely Savannah River, the Topper site is an archaeological treasure—the richest Clovis-era site ever found in the Southeast. Topper was discovered by archaeologists in the 1980s, when local resident John Topper led Al Goodyear out to the site. Topper has been under the trowel ever since, continuously proving itself a cache of Paleoindian data.Full Episode

The Topper site controversy:

New Evidence Puts Man In North America 50,000 Years AgoRadiocarbon tests of carbonized plant remains where artifacts were unearthed last May along the Savannah River in Allendale County by University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Albert Goodyear indicate that the sediments containing these artifacts are at least 50,000 years old, meaning that humans inhabited North American long before the last ice age.The key evidence:In 1998, Goodyear, nationally known for his research on the ice age PaleoIndian cultures dug below the 13,000-year Clovis level at the Topper site and found unusual stone tools up to a meter deeper. The Topper excavation site is on the bank of the Savannah River on property owned by Clariant Corp., a chemical corporation headquartered near Basel, Switzerland. He recovered numerous stone tool artifacts in soils that were later dated by an outside team of geologists to be 16,000 years old.And:Goodyear's team uncovered a black stain in the soil where artifacts lay, providing him the charcoal needed for radiocarbon dating. Dr. Tom Stafford of Stafford Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., came to Topper and collected charcoal samples for dating.

"Three radiocarbon dates were obtained from deep in the terrace at Topper with two dates of 50,300 and 51,700 on burnt plant remains.
Comment: The biggest achievement of the Topper visit seems to have been using ground penetrating radar to identify possible excavation sites. As in the Fremont episode, while this may be exciting to archaeologists, it isn't necessary exciting to laypersons.

Once again, the show didn't live up to the initial hype. The Time Team didn't uncover any evidence proving humans were at Topper before the Clovis era. The only conclusion offered was a weak "It's possible" and "We need to keep digging."

For more on the subject, see Fremont Indians in Time Team America and Fort Raleigh in Time Team America.

Below: "A 13,000 year old Clovis point found in the Time Team trench." (Photo: Meg Gaillard)

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