University of South Carolina

Topper site dig featured in new PBS series

The University of South Carolina's Topper archaeological dig site—home to some of the most significant research on earliest man in America—will be the subject of an hour-long episode in a new national PBS television series airing at 8 p.m. July 15 on SC-ETV stations.

Topper, located in Allendale County along the banks of the Savannah River, will be the second episode of the Time Team America series. The series launches July 7.

Based on a long-running British series, Time Team America takes viewers inside some of the most intriguing archaeological sites in America. The show's crew, comprising archaeologists and scientists, share the rush of discovery with viewers as artifacts emerge from the ground.

"This is the first one hour national broadcast on Topper, which is some measure of the importance of the site and the amount of public interest in the archaeology of early humans in the Americas," said Dr. Al Goodyear, the University of South Carolina archaeologist whose research at the Topper site has captured international attention and has put the archaeology field in flux.

Al Goodyear
Al Goodyear

Goodyear's findings suggest an occupation of an earlier pre-Clovis people dating back some 50,000 years or more and have sparked scientific debate and interest.

"A scientist may work for decades and not find anything extraordinarily rare or exciting, but we've had more than our share of these really cutting-edge discoveries," Goodyear said.

The Time Team America crew filmed at the Topper site in early June 2008. Producer Graham Dixon and a 20-member crew followed Goodyear and his team of graduate students and volunteers as they combed the depths of the Pleistocene layers to find Clovis and pre-Clovis artifacts, adding to the extensive artifacts previously excavated.

They also caught up with Arizona geophysicist Dr. Allen West who, with Goodyear in 2007, conducted research to support a theory that a giant comet exploded over North America around 12,900 years ago, killing the large beasts of the day (the wooly mammoth and mastodon), and, probably, many of the Clovis people.

PBS calls Time Team America "part extreme adventure, part hard science and part reality show." Dixon said he wants viewers to have the sensation of being on a dig and eavesdropping on conversations by top scientists.

"Time Team is about showing the reality of archaeology to the ordinary person and demystifying some of the processes going on. We never know what is going to happen on a dig. It's very exciting," said Dixon last June during the show's taping.

Dixon said he chose Topper because it is a high profile site and because of Goodyear.

"It is one of the best-managed sites I've ever worked on, and Dr. Goodyear is one of the most charismatic and effective communicators of history of all the people I've met."

The July 15 show will be the longest national broadcast devoted to Topper, which has been the subject of a 30-minute SC-ETV documentary and has been featured in many documentaries on Clovis and early man that have aired nationally on the History Channel and PBS. Most recently, Goodyear's research was featured in the winter issue of American Archaeology and in last fall's issue of Science Illustrated.

"The University's Topper site is probably one of the most important sites being excavated in the country today...It's a whole new chapter of history unfolding, and it's unfolding right here."

Scientific interest in Topper, particularly Goodyear's pre-Clovis findings, continues to build. Among the top researchers fascinated by the Topper site is Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of the archaeology division and director of the Paleo-Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Stanford was at Topper earlier this month to meet with Goodyear and observe excavation.

"The University's Topper site is probably one of the most important sites being excavated in the country today," said Stanford. "It's a whole new chapter of history unfolding, and its unfolding right here in Allendale. The Smithsonian stands for the acquisition and dispersion of science and knowledge to human communities, and that's exactly what is happening here."

Stanford has been keenly interested in Goodyear's pre-Clovis and Clovis findings, particularly for any similarities of Topper stone tools that may show a relationship to prehistoric sites found in Europe. He has theorized that Ice-age man of Europe may have migrated to North America at a time when the continents were connected by ice.

Goodyear said the study of ancient man is really an investigation of ourselves.

"It's not one time period. It's not one ethnic group. It's not one country of origin. When you go back thousands of years, you're really involved in the anthropology of our species," Goodyear said. "The story at Topper is everybody's story."

Goodyear collaborates with many of the nation's top archaeologists who study early-American occupations, including Dr. Mike Waters, geo-archaeologist and director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, and Dr. David Anderson at the University of Tennessee.

Goodyear's Clovis research, which began in Allendale County in 1984, is conducted through the University of South Carolina's South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA).  

SCIAA, part of the College of the Arts and Sciences, was established in 1963 as a University of South Carolina research institute and a cultural resource management agency for the state of South Carolina.

To learn more about Goodyear's research at Topper, go to For more information about SCIAA, go to or call 803-777-8170.

The Topper Story


Dr. Al Goodyear began excavating Clovis artifacts along the Savannah River in Allendale County in 1984. In 1998, hoping to find evidence of a pre-Clovis culture earlier than the accepted 13,100 years, Goodyear began a concerted digging effort on a site called Topper, located on the property of the Clariant Corporation.

His efforts paid off.

Goodyear unearthed blades made of flint and chert that he believed to be the tools of an ice age culture back some 16,000 years or more. His findings, as well as similar ones yielded at other pre-Clovis sites in North America, sparked great change and debate in the scientific community.

Believing that if Clovis people thrived near the banks of the Savannah River, Goodyear thought the area could have been an ideal location for a more ancient culture. Acting on a hunch in 2004, Goodyear dug even deeper down into the Pleistocene Terrace and found more artifacts of a pre-Clovis type buried in a layer of sediment stained with charcoal deposits. Radio carbon dates of the burnt plant remains yielded dates of 50,000 years, which suggested that man was in South Carolina long before the last ice age. Goodyear's finding not only captured international media attention, it also opened scientific minds to the possibility of an even earlier pre-Clovis occupation in the Americas.

Since 2004, Goodyear has continued his Clovis and pre-Clovis excavations at Topper. In 2007, a new wrinkle in the Topper story emerged when a group of geo-scientists suggested that the explosion of a massive comet 12,900 years ago may have wiped out man and the great beasts of the day. The theory was supported when scientists found concentrations of iridium, an extraterrestrial element found in comets in the Clovis-era sediment. Goodyear's artifact research also supported the theory, as his data showed a tremendous drop-off of the fluted spear points around that same time period.

With private support, a massive shelter and viewing deck now sits above the dig, sheltering Goodyear and his team of graduate students and volunteers from the heat and rain as they continue their work on what may be the most significant early-man dig in America.

Posted: 07/03/09 @ 3:00 PM | Updated: 11/09/09 @ 1:56 PM | Permalink