Wednesday , February 21 2024

Pre-columbian artifacts to return home

Amerindian artefacts dug up by archaeologists on Saba in the past three decades will be returned to the island in the near future. The Daily Herald writes about this. The objects, mostly fragments of pottery, stone, shell and bones will be stored at the Saba Heritage Centre in the course of next year. The artefacts from three locations, Spring Bay, Spring Bay Flat, The Bottom and Kelbey’s Ridge, are currently stored in boxes at a warehouse of the Archaeology Faculty of the University of Leiden. The transfer of the prehistoric material is necessary because the Faculty of Archaeology is moving its location in the summer of 2014.
Saba Commissioners Bruce Zagers and Chris Johnson visited the warehouse late October where they inspected the contents of some of the boxes together with Professor Menno Hoogland. Hoogland carried out multiple excavations at various locations in Saba since 1987 together with Professor Dr. Corinne Hofman, leading Professor of Caribbean Archaeology at Leiden University.
The artefacts, will be accommodated at the Saba Heritage Centre which will be built next to the old library building in Windwardside. Construction should start in 2014. Commissioner Zagers said funds have been set aside in the 2014 budget for the Heritage Centre.
The boxes stored in Leiden mainly contain pieces of locally manufactured pottery, stone, shell and bone from animals and humans. Some artefacts from Plum Piece will remain in Leiden for further research and analysis, but all the other  materials have been researched by students in Leiden already. Hofman lauded the construction of the Saba Heritage Centre. “It is very important for Saba to have a central place for its heritage,” she said. Plans to create an exposition facility date back to 1989. The plan did not go ahead for several reasons. In 2010 there was a misunderstanding between professor Corinne Hofman and René Caderius van Veen who had offered to transport all four pallets with boxes and also three showcases in his 40 ft container when he moved to Saba. Also because it was not clear at that moment where the pallets would be stored or where the showcases would be standing on Saba this option was not used.
Preserving the artefacts for future generations is important because they tell a lot about Saba’s history and heritage. Some of the oldest artefacts from Plum Piece date back some 3,500 years and provide a good picture of the way these first inhabitants of the island moved between the islands of the Lesser Antilles, said Hoogland. The Amerindians of that time never stayed long in one place and moved between the islands seasonally and for resource procurement. They mostly hunted land crabs and sea birds. They also ate fish, seeds, nuts, fruits and wild turnips. During their excavations over the years, the archaeologists discovered used tools made of stone, flint, shells and coral among the food debris of the Amerindians. Excavations by Hoogland and Hofman at Kelbey’s Ridge have uncovered the tracks of a number of small round wooden houses dating to the 14th century. The dead were buried underneath the house floors. There are indications that the burial pit remained open for a while after the burial took place and that bone material was removed which was probably used for ancestor veneration.
At Kelbey’s Ridge large amounts of fish debris was found which indicates that the people who lived there were involved in intensive fishery, most probably at the Saba Bank. The remains at Kelbey’s Ridge were found in 1989 close to the construction site of a house and they were almost lost because a bulldozer had started to flatten the area on the day that the excavations started. Canoes played a crucial role in communication because they were used to peddle between the islands. It appears that in the earliest occupation period people came to Saba in a certain period of the year to collect plants and to chop wood to make canoes. Saba had very large trees which were good for the production of canoes. The people made dugout canoes from burnt trees on the Saba hills which they then carried down to the sea. Due to its geographical position Saba may very well have been an important link within the network of the Amerindians between main communities in the Greater Antilles and those on the South American continent.
The presence of Amerindians who came to the island around 400 years after Christ was found during excavations at Spring Bay. These people made pottery and were active in small scale horticulture. They cultivated tuberous plants such as yucca and sweet potatoes, as well as corn, fruits and avocados.
Excavations at The Bottom unveiled the presence of a large Amerindian settlement between 1,000 and 1,400 after Christ. “The Bottom is one big archaeological site,” said Hoogland. Archaeological material is located under many buildings, including the churches, Administration Building and the police station.
Amerindian settlements were also uncovered in other areas on Saba, such as Spring Bay, St. Johns, Windwardside and near the airport. The “most recent” tracks dating back to around 1350 after Christ were found at Kelbey’s Ridge and also in The Bottom.
Part of Saba’s archaeological collection went back to the island several years ago. The significant collection pieces have been exhibited in various locations, including the Government building, Carmen Simmons cultural centre/library and the museum. These pieces, along with the artefacts now stored in Leiden, will come together in the Saba Heritage Centre. Hoogland and Hofman hope that the archaeological programme will result in an even bigger participation of the community at large, including the local schools. The heritage trail and the Saba Heritage Centre will hopefully contribute to a wider community participation and awareness. Involving local students has proven an effective way to get the community involved and to create greater awareness of the importance of preserving and recognising Saba’s heritage. Hoogland and Hofman always invited local children to their excavation sites. Island Governor Jonathan Johnson and Commissioner Chris Johnson for example helped at the sites. Today, local students actively participate in the archaeology programme of the Saba Archaeological Centre SABARC. The programme was set up by well-known Windward islands archaeologist and St. Maarten Archaeological Centre Simarc Jay Haviser and Ryan Espersen, Marie Curie ITN PhD researcher of the EUROTAST and member of the Caribbean Research Group of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University. Students had the honour to meet with King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima when they visited Saba on November 14. On that occasion, the Spring Bay Heritage Trail was officially opened. Espersen has worked with Hoogland and Hofman since 2006. He was also part of the excavations at Spring Bay Flat and Spring Bay colonial ruins that took place in 2012 and 2013. Hoogland and Hofman have been regular visitors to Saba since 1987. Their first period of excavations covered 1987 to 1991. They did the second set of excavations between 2000 and 2006. Hoogland’s introduction to Caribbean archaeology dates back to 1984. At the time he worked with archaeologist Aad Versteeg of Leiden University. They worked on St. Eustatius, at the prehistoric Golden Rock site near the airport at the time of the extension of the runway. Hoogland went along with the team as field worker. Shortly after the Antillean cultural foundations Sticusa and OKSNA made money available for Saba. “The project was so successful that we received a subsidy from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO to continue,” said Hoogland. Hoogland and Hofman worked on various other islands in the Caribbean such as Guadeloupe, Long Island Antigua, St. Martin, St. Eustatius, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Vincent and Curaçao, but they have not lost sight of Saba. They regularly discover remains like the ones in a gut near the school in St. Johns. Hofman recently won the prestigious Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences KNAW-Merian Award 2013 for excellent female researchers for her extensive archaeological research in the wider Caribbean.

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