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How do you renovate a 16,000-year-old shelter? 

Even those who have never been to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter archaeological site may find some aspects of it strangely familiar at first visit. This might be because visitors reach the location, about 35 miles from Pittsburgh near the West Virginia border, by driving through typically Western Pennsylvanian wooded and hilly back roads. Likewise, the evocative topography of the Rockshelter itself is reminiscent of Fallingwater, because here, too, a shelf-like rock outcropping projects near a small stream that flows quickly to a larger river.

Or maybe it's simply the deeply stirring sense of knowing that humans have walked this ground with regularity for 16,000 years. We've never been here, but we've always been here. There's something delightfully paradoxical about this place.

Accordingly, a new visitors' structure by Pfaffmann & Associates, with numerous collaborating engineers and consultants, engages a variety of seemingly contradictory but potentially poetic demands in architecture and structure.

When the dig began, in 1973, no shelter for tourists seemed especially necessary. Archaeologist Jim Adovasio sought a workable dig reasonably near the University of Pittsburgh, where he was teaching. (He is now provost and director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst College, in Erie.) Albert Miller, whose family farm encompassed the property, led him to the Meadowcroft Rock Ledge. Ashes and beer cans left by strangers testified to the lingering appeal of a campfire under the ledge, but Miller sensed there was more.

Adovasio quickly discovered that sand washing from the rock created "phyllo-like" layers of thin and precise strata between artifacts from a stunning continuum of eras. Eleven feet below the surface, he found a stone lanceolate, or spearpoint, dating back 16,000 years -- about 4,000 years earlier than the oldest documented North American settlements at that time.

Many archaeologists met Adovasio's discoveries with rancorous skepticism, but continuous testing of artifacts, as well as discoveries of similar dates in a few other sites across the county, have vindicated his ongoing work. "This is the oldest site of human habitation that has been recognized to date in North America," says Andy Masich, executive director of the Senator John Heinz History Center, which has operated the site since 1993. As a happy enrichment of the sense of paradox, the unassuming hideaway also has continental significance.

Some joke that the new roof enclosure has been 16,000 years in the making, so that the 15 years since the History Center took over the site and began feasibility studies are an eye-blink by comparison. The new structure is essentially a sloping roof attached to the inner rock face and supported by glue-laminated wooden beams. It extends enough to recreate the full extent of the original overhang and to cover the viewing platform, which allows visitors to see into the actual dig. Here, seemingly innumerable tags precisely mark the locations of strata from which the archaeological team has uncovered "20,000 implements, 965,000 animal bones and millions of plants," says Adovasio.

The architecture must both protect and respond to this delicate enterprise. Architect Rob Pfaffmann emphasizes that much of the structural support comes from three large steel poles connecting to huge rocks below, near the stream bed. The boulders are in fact chunks of the natural overhang that have fallen over the millennia and now allow the human-made structure to stand more solidly. Pfaffmann states, "I love the poetics of how the old roof is supporting the new roof."

Indeed, the entire project is elevated, not just structurally but artistically, by such interrelationships. The post-and-beam structure strikes precisely the right note for a project that must be both new and timeless. Its vertical and horizontal connections are almost primordial in their visual simplicity, but closer inspection reveals that they are detailed with elegance and care.

Pfaffmann is quick to credit current principal Erik Hokanson and project architect Greg George for this work. He also cites former employer Peter Bohlin, who is known for such elegant wooden structures. Yet this ongoing architectural style seems especially perfect for this spot -- as if it had always been here.

click to enlarge Protecting the past: Meadowcroft Rockshelter's new facility
  • Protecting the past: Meadowcroft Rockshelter's new facility

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