The exhibit “Searching for our Beginnings: Public Archaeology at the Topper Site” features stone tools made by people long, long ago in a place very, very near. The research gets world-wide attention from scholars and the news media because it shows that people were in the Americas 50,000 years ago. That’s a radical idea, because the prevailing opinion was that people first came to the Americas about 13,000 years ago.
Dr. Al Goodyear of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina directed the research at the Topper Site. The site is on the bank of the Savannah River in Allendale County about 15 miles from the USC Salkehatchie Campus.
The exhibit at USC Salkehatchie is the first permanent display of artifacts from the Topper Site. The exhibit was prepared by the South Carolina Archaeological Public Outreach Division under the direction of Dr. Goodyear in consultation with Dr. Ann Carmichael, the dean of USC Salkehatchie. The exhibit includes artifacts, explanatory posters and a kiosk with interactive audio-visual presentations.
This exhibit is called “Searching for our Beginnings” because it’s about looking for evidence of the first human beings to live here, in what we now call South Carolina in the southeastern part of the continent of North America.
It’s called “Public” because the public is involved in the search. Volunteers from around the United States came here every spring for many years to work on the project. A map accompanying the exhibit shows the hometowns of various volunteers. The site itself is on private property and is not open to the public, although special tours have been conducted occasionally. The exhibit in the lobby of the library building is an example of public archaeology because the exhibit is open to the public whenever the campus is open.
The dictionary definition of “Archaeology” is “The scientific study of the remains and monuments of the prehistoric period” (OED online). The prehistoric period is the time before history was recorded, before people wrote records of what they were doing. Prehistoric people spoke their language but they did not write their language, so there are no written records.
It’s called “the Topper site” because a local man named David Topper showed the scientists where to look for evidence of prehistoric people in this area.
The exhibited items marked “Clovis” are about thirteen thousand years old. The name comes from the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where tools were found that had been made with the same technology at the same time period. The Topper Site is the largest site in the Southeast that has evidence of people living here during the Clovis time.
The items marked “Pre-Clovis” are more than fifteen thousand years old and could be fifty thousand years old. The Topper Site is one of only a few places where evidence has been found that people lived in America that long ago. The research at the Topper Site might be able to tell us who these people were and how they got here.
Two other display cases at the Salkehatchie Library contain prehistoric human tools, weapons, and dishes that have been found along the Savannah River. Although a few of these items are from the Clovis time, most of them were made by American Indians within the past several thousand years.