ARCHEOLOGICAL DIGS IN THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
By - Nancy Terrell
(reprinted from Nautical Scene 1998)
Something very exciting is happening in the British Virgin Islands - through archeological digs we are discovering much of our history. For the fourth year in a row, archeologists are visiting the BVI from the University of London. Dr. Peter Drewett, head of London University's Pre-historic Archeology Department at the school's Institute of Archeology, is leading a team to discover more about the Amerindian natives that inhabited the BVI centuries ago. Archeologists have always believed that the Amerindian tribes that migrated to the Antilles from South America about 3,000 years ago could have moved through this area.
Dr. Drewett first came to Tortola in the summer of 1994 and dug a series of test pits on the site of an Amerindian fishing camp discovered on the grounds of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. A survey of 33 Amerindian sites along the coast of Tortola was also conducted at the time, indicating the scope of the island's prehistoric population.
Each summer since then, the team of archeologists has returned to the BVI to excavate a new site. So far excavations have been carried out at Paraquita Bay, on acreage adjoining the Community College, at Belmont, a low-lying area behind the beach at Long Bay on Tortola's north shore, and on the small island of Jost Van Dyke. Dr. Drewett and his team are currently excavating the beach and inland area centering around White Bay, on the western shore.
Hundreds of samples of plainware pottery, which is unpainted and simple in design, and adornos were found belonging to early tribes. Adornos are the sculpted images of people or animals that decorated the handles and rims of the pottery crafted at that time. Layers of earth were dug and were individually recorded. Specimens were bagged that included not only pottery shards, but fish bones, which are used to determine the type of diet observed by the tribes at that time.
Also unearthed were various types of shells indicating different eras and charcoal samples, which are used to help determine the dating. Soil samples were also taken for later analysis. This all reveals that life was actively lived in small Indian tribes of about thirty inhabitants some 500 years ago on the island. More than thirty-two sites were found showing that the Indian population on the island could have been upwards of 1,000 people.
The team also uncovered the postholes to a small roundhouse that is believed to have been part of a ceremonial area. Other ceremonial objects unearthed in the vicinity included several small ceramic pots, a triton shell "trumpet", two oblong polished stones and an incised shell "vomit" spatula, which was used for religious purification. All the objects that have been found so far are from the Ostionoid period which spans from 900 to 1500 AD.
Although there was no evidence of a permanent dwelling found during the digging at Paraquita, Dr. Drewett did gather evidence that would suggest that Indians lived there temporarily in clusters of communities that would have centered on fishing and farming.
As there is a fresh water supply near the Paraquita site, as well as a mangrove lagoon, the early inhabitants had ready access to a plentiful food and water supply. The team had hoped to uncover pottery from an earlier period, mainly from 100 to 200 AD which is known as the Saladoid Era but, as yet, none has been discovered. Saladoid pottery is unlike plainware pottery in that is highly detailed with an incised crosshatch decoration and would thus indicate a more intricate way of life.
The response to such archeological excavations was positive and plentiful in Tortola. More than 100 people living on the islands turned out to help with the digging. The college helped by letting the team use their facilities, including the biology lab.
Dr. Drewetts visit is quick to point out the importance of these excavations for the islands, I see this as an exciting process as to what I hope will be a continuing liaison between the British Virgin Islands and London University. This will provide all of us living within these beautiful islands with an enhancement in knowledge of the little known pre-historic people and the environment that was present here many years ago.
In 1997 the team returned to visit an old coconut grove in Belmont at West End, Tortola. In all, 24 researchers participated in the dig which revealed new evidence dating from about 900 AD to 1500 AD. This site was originally explored about 15 years ago when a researcher from St, Thomas conducted an exploratory dig in the area. Researchers discovered a village that most probably had a population of between 300 and 400 residents.
It is conjectured by the archeologists that the triangular-shaped Belmont Hill, which serves as a backdrop to the site, may have been worshiped as a zemi (deities which were believed to live in trees, rocks and other features of the landscape.) The hill may have served as a focal point of the Village's religious ceremonies. The Amerindian religion centered on the worship of zemis and to three-cornered idols or fetishes representing them, usually made of wood, stone, bone or shell.
Participation in last summer's dig included local students as well as the general public. By including the local population, the team hopes to heighten local awareness of the islands' pre-historic Indian population, which Dr. Drewett believes may have equaled its current population.
Jost Van Dyke
The team has returned this summer to Jost Van Dyke and is currently conducting excavations at White Bay. As in previous years, the project is being carried out in conjunction with the Virgin Islands Historical Society and the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. Last summer's finds as well as artifacts from the previous Belmont dig are on display at the VI Folk Museum on Main Street in Road Town. The findings of the current digs will be published by the college this fall and should aid all island residents of the Caribbean in knowing just a little more about our beginnings.