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K. Kris Hirst

Time Team America: The Topper Site

By July 13, 2009

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The 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.

Time Team America excavation leader Chelsea Rose digs at the Topper Site
Time Team America excavation leader Chelsea Rose digs at the Topper Site. Photo by
Meg Gaillard

Topper is one of the few stratified Clovis period sites anywhere, buried about two feet below the current surface, and of unknown size and shape. At this site, Clovis people quarried a fairly high quality stone material, and made stone tools to take away elsewhere about 12,000 years ago. Note: Faithful reader Derek A points out that radiocarbon dates are rare in the southeast, and c14 dates for Clovis are primarily from western sites.

That's exciting in and of itself—there are very few intact Clovis sites at all, let alone one so large and dense. The controversial part is that excavator Al Goodyear believes that there is a preclovis site beneath the Clovis, dated to between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Preclovis sites are gaining some ground in archaeological circles these days—but not preclovis sites dated to 50,000 years ago. Accepting a date that old would take a great deal more than one site with some pretty iffy artifacts, because if true, it would overthrow much of what archaeologists have learned about the way the world was populated.

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. I have to say, I don't think I've ever seen anyone try to find a prehistoric site using GPR (usually it's for finding big honking buried features like foundation walls and coffins), so it should be interesting to see if this application is used elsewhere on very dense prehistoric occupation sites. (I could be wrong about this, please let me know if you know otherwise.)

In addition to excavation progress, flint knapper and experimental archaeologist Scott Jones risks life and eyesight making stone tools in his bare feet and without safety glasses (kids—do not try this at home). Archaeologist David Anderson brings his expertise and the current location map of fluted point finds to the program; and geologist David Leigh discusses what the environment would have been like for the Clovis-period occupants at Topper.

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.

As an American archaeologist, I've read and written a lot about the Topper site, about whether preclovis is a reality, and about the various ways that have been hypothesized about the way the first people got to the Americas, and I have pretty strong opinions on the subjects. For one thing, it's going to take a lot to convince me that humans have been in the Americas as long ago as 50,000 years.

But, I have to say that Topper is a marvelous choice to investigate by the Time Team. The site is a fabulous Clovis period occupation, and the opportunity to look at some of the evidence for the preclovis site, not to mention the site itself, is very useful. If you've an interest in the original colonization of America, don't miss this program!

To go along with the Time Team America series, I've compiled a list of resources for Time Team's Topper program, including details on the Topper site, Clovis, preclovis, black mats, and the four theories of populating the Americas; a link to David Anderson's (and Michael Faught's) map of fluted points as well as links to the PBS program and the official website for Topper. Oh, and the only peer-reviewed publication on Topper that I'm aware of was published just this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: that's listed there too.


July 13, 2009 at 5:49 pm
(1) billwalker says:

Many thanks for the info on PBS broadcast Wed. eve.

July 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm
(2) B.R. Walters says:

One note on Topper: While the black mat phenomenon is part of the package of comet evidence supporting the theory, Topper is one of the several sites that does not have black mat. I believe it does, however, show a clear level of the nanodiamonds, metallic microspherules, carbon spherules, magnetic spherules and iridium that are evidence of cometary impact fallout.

July 14, 2009 at 8:48 am
(3) Kris Hirst says:

Yep, you’re right–the program shows that although there isn’t a black mat at Topper, there are iridium and the other pieces of evidence you mention.

July 15, 2009 at 6:45 am
(4) Jane says:

Maybe it’s time to take another look at the otherwise unimpugnable Louis Leakey’s claimed 200,000-300,000 year old hominid stone quarry in Calico, California.

I think in the end (politics allowing) we will find that one or more waves of Homo erectus reached the New World after 800,000 years ago (hominid rafting across the Wallace Line in Indonesia demonstrated), and sparsely inhabited the neotropics and neo-subtropics (which extended quite far north in the Middle Pleistocene warm periods).

As to the Clovis people, we know what they looked like: Kennewick Man.

But interestingly they may have arrived from Europe either via the Atlantic, or via Asia and the Bering — with a population remaining in northeast Asia as the Ainu. A trans-Asia migration would actually explain the time gap and cultural impoverishment between the Solutrean and Clovis cultures well.

July 15, 2009 at 10:01 pm
(5) Elizabeth says:

The comet that may have caused the Younger Dyras trigger, may not have landed as a whole but started to break up as it entered earth’s atmosphere and rained down over several hundred miles. The program never really explained what happened to the Clovis people. Did they die out or limp along until the Archaic Period? The Windover Pond people of about 7000-8000 years ago had a fairly sophisticated culture. The Clovis people most likely had a good grasp on their environment and how to survive in it as as well but archaeology will probably never reveal that much.

July 16, 2009 at 10:21 am
(6) Kris Hirst says:

The Archaic people, the theory goes, are descended from the remnants of the Clovis culture. There may have been continuing inflow migration from Asia in North America throughout the Archaic, but by and large, Clovis folks had to adapt when the big animals disappeared and went to (or I suppose went back to) a broader-based hunting and gathering lifeway.

The technology changed and the culture changed with it, but not the people. That’s what we do, we humans, adapt to change.


July 16, 2009 at 4:43 pm
(7) Virgil H. Soule says:

Someone showed a distribution of Clovis finds all across North America. Has anybody attempted to infer population size from that distribution? Were Clovis people numerous or just peripatetic?

Clovis points were designed to bring down large animals. I think any similarity to Solutrean technology is more a matter of form following function.

As for how Europeans might have gotten here, they had a land bridge of sorts in the form of an extensive Arctic ice cap. Modern Arctic peoples (e.g., Inuit) have for many generations traveled large distances over the ice. The ancestors of modern Lapplanders or Siberians, for example, might have done the same.

July 17, 2009 at 10:32 am
(8) Kris Hirst says:

The Paleo Indian Data Base of the Americas (PIDBA) distribution map is here:
But the database has a few problems, listed here:
I think it would be really hard to make assumptions about what the data represents given the fact that the collection is not systematic. But it does definitely have potential,. and the PIDBA folks are still collecting information from collectors and archaeologists.

July 20, 2009 at 3:47 pm
(9) Skidmarks says:

Is Topper a pre-Clovis site? Texas A&M examined the artifacts and found them not “controversial” but pure whimsy.

Is Topper a “great” Clovis site? No. The Gault site (investigated by Texas A&M) is a great Clovis site. Various locations along the Briar Creek in Georgia and at various Allendale Chert quarries in SC have produced Clovis points, blades, and cores more impressive than what is shown on the Topper web site.

July 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm
(10) Kris Hirst says:

From my standpoint, where most of the Clovis sites I’m personally aware of are either surface finds or a cache, Topper with its range of tools and lithic density in an intact layer qualifies as a “great” Clovis site.

On the other hand, if there “can be only one”, then, oh yes, oh yes indeedy, Gault wins.


July 20, 2009 at 11:51 pm
(11) B.R. Walters says:

I’d be interested in Skidmark’s fleshing out his/her painting Texas A&M’s take on possible pre-clovis lithics at the Allendale-Topper site being “pure whimsy,” when the way the A&M site actually characterizes it as this:
“While the geological context and age of the sediments that contain the reported Pre-Clovis artifacts are secure, questions remain about the origin of the reported artifacts. The Topper assemblage may be the result of human manufacture [i.e. evidence of pre-Clovis human activity] or may also be the result of natural thermal spalling.”
That’s not far from the initial position most have taken on the now-many potential pre-Clovis sites, though more and more archaeologists who have visited the Allendale-Topper site are persuaded of the manufactured authenticity of the lithics found beneath the Clovis level. Texas A&M’s own archaeology publication has referred to the lead Topper archaeologist’s “solid scholarship.” A Texas A&M doctoral student, a lithics specialist, was the unit supervisor for the Topper site’s hillside dig in the 2006 season.
Also, would you flesh out your comment about other Allendale chert quarries and the Brier Creek site producing more “impressive” lithics? Topper IS the heart of the Allendale quarry, and –unless you can bring me more up to date — Brier Creek, west across the Savannah River, has not been nearly as extensively excavated, has it? Where can I see images of these “more impressive” points and blades?

July 21, 2009 at 10:09 pm
(12) Miriam Pat says:

I saw the Time Team program on the clovis site in southeastern United States and was very pleased! I saw another program at least a year ago about pre-clovis people in the same region. It’s good that more people will be able to learn about this.

July 22, 2009 at 11:44 pm
(13) un-legendary says:

In debates with fundies of course human history is either 2000 yrs old or billions and we (humans) rode on backs of dinosaurs.
It’s incredible trying to convince them that humans could have existed on the N. American continent much more than maybe ten years before “Christopher Columbus” “discovered America”.. Then again..that would require actual thought. Science? Much to hard so they turn to the bible instead.
Thanks for your good work.

July 24, 2009 at 8:23 pm
(14) Michael Nelson says:

I found the application of GPR on the Topper site interesting. As an Archaeologist who specializes in geophysics I have used GPR on battlefield sites and have found objects as small as 35 cm, but these were metallic which is a better reflector then litic tools are.

The resolution of GPR is determined by many factors, the most important of which is the frequency of the antenna. The higher the frequency, the higher the resolution but the effective depth decreases with the increasing frequency. Moreover the equipment the Time Team America show uses is far from “state of the art” which also does not help. I have found hearths, ovens and house floors using GPR, but nothing as small as a stone tool yet. By the way, great site!

July 25, 2009 at 12:22 pm
(15) Moe LaMarre says:

I have found,in a four meter high cliff along the northern shore of Lake Erie,two distinct sets of Stone artifacts.Within the top meter-clovis tools formed from the usual materials-chert,granite, slate,etc. by both percussion and grinding. Below three meters and below a layer of clay that is devoid of any artifacts, crude percussion formed only tools all of a hard limestone composition.Obviously there were two groups seperated by a long period of time and by glaciation.It is entirely probable that humans were here before Clovis.To think otherwise is convenient but not very sound science.

July 26, 2009 at 7:44 pm
(16) Mikkel says:

Thanks for this. Kris wrote:

“Preclovis sites are gaining some ground in archaeological circles these days—but not preclovis sites dated to 50,000 years ago. Accepting a date that old would take a great deal more than one site with some pretty iffy artifacts, because if true, it would overthrow much of what archaeologists have learned about the way the world was populated.”

What constitutes “iffy?” The fact that it would overturn received theory? If there is one single artifact found in situ within undisputed preclovis strata, that one artifact should hold equal weight, regardless of where the chips fall. As I understand it, that is empiricism and a pro-science attitude. The maxim, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” is, when you think about it, nothing more that a way to move the goalposts–a double standard. Perhaps it should be re-phrased: “Extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary denial.” Anyway, many thanks for the post.

July 27, 2009 at 8:58 am
(17) Kris Hirst says:

No, “iffy artifacts” means I’m not convinced they’re human-made–and I’m not alone in that. And, about the way archaeology works, I like the way Richard Klein put it recently:

“The first discovery of a unique or unexpected assemblage should be regarded as a possible accident; even the second discovery could be a coincidence. In general, only repeated, independent discoveries establish a pattern that merits serious behavioral interpretation.” Richard Klein


July 29, 2009 at 10:58 pm
(18) Michael Nelson says:

This quote is a great one:

“The first discovery of a unique or unexpected assemblage should be regarded as a possible accident; even the second discovery could be a coincidence. In general, only repeated, independent discoveries establish a pattern that merits serious behavioral interpretation.” Richard Klein

However,if you actually read the article it is taken from you discover it is refering behavioral interpretation, which to many is “iffy” in and of itself. It is not refering to Lithic analysis to determine if an item is an artifact or ecofact, which has to be sorted out before moving to the more ethereal arena of discerning behavior, and usually requires an entire assemblage of recognized tools. In the case of the Topper site, it has not been established that the items in question were altered or created by humans, and certainly no assemblage has been described that even a large minority can agree on. We must follow where the facts lead, and in this specific case the “fact” of these artifacts has yet to be convincingly established. But it certainly does deserve further objective investigation. Ain’t Archaeology Grand?

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