Archaeology: New research casts doubt on Ohio's oldest 'house'

Bradley Lepper
Bradley Lepper

Did you know that Ohio supposedly has North America’s oldest house – a dwelling used by Ice Age, mastodon-hunting Paleoindians?

In the early 1990s, David Brose, then with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was working at the Paleo Crossing site in Medina County. He claimed to have uncovered three post molds, stains in the soil showing where posts had been set into the ground. These post molds were in the vicinity of spear points and other stone tools of the Clovis culture. Radiocarbon dates for one of the post molds suggested that the “house” was 12,250 years old, which matched the age of the Clovis points.

More: Archaeology: Researchers confident who buried cache of stone tools, but not why

Even at the time, however, not everyone was convinced. In 1995, an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Sunday magazine reported that some archaeologists had doubts about the post molds and the radiocarbon dates.

A new study published in the Journal of Field Archaeology shows that those doubts were justified.

Two teams, one from Kent State University, led by Metin Eren, and another from Southern Methodist University, led by David Meltzer, collaborated in a recent reinvestigation of the Paleo Crossing site. Brian Redmond from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is a co-author of the report.

After reviewing the documentation from the 1990s excavations, the group concluded that Brose actually found only one definitive post mold. The other two turned out to be a possible root stain and a mapping error.

Between 2016 and 2018, Eren and Meltzer excavated 32 square meters in the same area where Brose worked. They identified six possible post molds similar to what Brose found. Disappointingly, radiocarbon dates showed they ranged in age from 300 to 1,100 years old.

At least some of these posts appear to be historic-era fence posts probably made from wood cut from old trees on the property, but even the oldest is more than 10,000 years too late to be part of a Paleoindian house.

Meltzer and his co-authors emphasize that the absence of evidence for a house at Paleo Crossing doesn’t diminish the importance of the site. After all, they recovered over a thousand artifacts, including typical Clovis tools such as scrapers and gravers, making it one of the richest Clovis sites in eastern North America.

And, actually, there could have been Clovis houses there that neither Brose nor Eren and Meltzer found.

Across North America, archaeologists have found only one Clovis-age house. It was at the Thunderbird site in Virginia and even it might belong to a later period. Meltzer and colleagues suspect that the reason so few Clovis houses have been found is that these early Americans moved around a lot and so didn’t put a lot of effort into building substantial houses.

So the Clovis people at Paleo Crossing may have lived in tent-like wigwams that didn’t require large posts to be set into the ground.

So what’s the deal with that post mold Brose found?

Meltzer and colleagues offer three possible interpretations. Maybe it really is the only surviving post mold from a Clovis house. Maybe the ancient post was used for something other than a house. Or maybe the radiocarbon dates are from older charcoal that somehow got into a more-recent post mold.

Whatever the explanation, one postmold with a few questionable radiocarbon dates isn’t sufficient to support the claim that Ohio has America’s oldest house.

Brad Lepper is the Senior Archaeologist for the Ohio History Connection’s World Heritage Program

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Archaeology: New research casts doubt on Ohio's oldest 'house'