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New Approaches, New Discoveries

toc-taino-vesselBy Pete T. Sinelli, M.A.

Archaeologists have been excavating prehistoric Indian sites in the Turks & Caicos Islands for almost 30 years. Through the efforts of researchers like Shaun Sullivan, William Keegan, Betsy Carlson, Brian Riggs and Sharyn Jones O’Day, we now know a great deal about the lifeways and culture of the native Lucayan people who first welcomed Christopher Columbus to the New World. However, archaeology is not a stagnant science — new discoveries always await. To move forward, new sites must be located and examined, and fresh perspectives and approaches developed and applied.

In Spring, 2004, a new generation of archaeologists descended upon the Turks & Caicos to initiate the next phase of research. This is the story of what we found, and where we believe it will take our appreciation of the Islands’ first residents.

For six weeks in May and June 2004, a team of archaeologists from the University of Florida in Gainesville conducted a series of surveys and excavations throughout the Turks & Caicos. The group of nine undergraduate anthropology students was led by University of Florida graduate students Pete Sinelli (M.A. Anthropology, University of Florida) and Geoff DuChemin (B.A. Anthropology, University of North Florida).

It has long been thought that pre-Columbian Lucayan peoples preferred to settle on the larger islands — those with people on them today — rather than live on the numerous small cays and islets that lie out on the banks. Archaeologists have traditionally focused their attention on the larger land masses, assuming that the smaller, more resource-deficient cays could not have supported a sizeable, long-term human occupation. As a result, most of the sites known in the Turks & Caicos Islands are located on larger islands. However, this was due mostly to the fact that until recently, few researchers had ever systematically looked for Indian sites anywhere else.

On my first Turks & Caicos expedition in 1999, I took a chance and ventured out to tiny Pelican Cay off Bambarra Landing on the north shore of Middle Caicos. Pelican Cay lies a little more than half a mile from the coast and is connected by a sandbar so that the water is never more than waist deep. After a long wade, what I found was impressive: a substantial pre-Columbian site loaded with big fish bones and sherds of fancy decorated pottery that was imported all the way from Hispaniola. Clearly, this little cay could not have been self-sufficient — it’s far too small to provide room for crops and has no fresh water — yet there were the artifacts that indicated it was used heavily for as long as 500 years.

Upon further research I learned that Pelican Cay is not unique. Local researchers had recently identified a number of sites on smaller, remote cays throughout the Turks & Caicos. As an avid naturalist and bushman, Brian Riggs of the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources has occasionally visited these places to enhance his database of the nation’s biological and cultural resources. Over the years, Brian has identified a number of archaeological sites on Ambergris Cay and Plandon Cay on the Caicos Bank and Cotton Cay on the Turks Bank.

Similarly, Captain Bob Gascoine and Jane Minty documented a large site on Middleton Cay off South Caicos. Various reports of these and other resources were also made to the Turks & Caicos National Museum by visiting tourists, many of whom stumbled across prehistoric artifacts while boating around the banks. However, none of these sites had ever been excavated or studied in any detail. Archaeologists had largely ignored them.

Clearly, these small, outlying cays played an important role in the lives of prehistoric people. But how, exactly, and what can small-cay sites tell us about prehistoric Lucayan culture? The only way to answer such questions is to put archaeologists on the ground and let them get dirty, which is precisely why the University of Florida expedition was organized.

Our objective this Spring was to visit as many small cays as possible to determine the extent to which pre-Columbian peoples occupied these islands. When we found sites, we conducted test excavations to learn more about who had lived there, when they had lived there, and what factors may have attracted them to these places. Ultimately, this research will help us ascertain the relationship between small-cay villages and large-island settlements in order to understand the role small cay sites may have played in Indian society.

spud-siteArchaeologists call the process of exploring an area for new sites a “survey.” Surveys are coordinated affairs that require a great deal of advance planning before one ever sets foot in the target area. The most important tool an archaeologist has is an understanding of the kinds of local environments in which prehistoric peoples regularly chose to live. Another important factor is an appreciation for what sites look like after being abandoned and exposed to the tropical elements for more than five centuries. Throw in a few good maps (Government-produced topographic maps, upon which sites are never marked with an X), a GPS unit, a machete and a thirst for adventure, and you’re ready to start looking!

Not surprisingly, the native peoples of the Turks & Caicos Islands preferred to live very near their primary source of food: the sea. Specifically, they preferred leeward coasts that were sheltered from the prevailing easterly winds. Most often they would locate their villages just behind the first dune, less than 50 meters from a suitable beach upon which they could easily land their dugout canoes. Therefore, it makes more sense to explore areas with these attributes than to ramble around steep, rocky cliffs or the wind-swept, boulder-strewn shores typical of the windward (eastern) shores.

Once a suitable ecology has been identified, all eyes turn toward the ground. Sites in the Turks & Caicos can be readily identified by darker gray or black soil, with conch shells showing small, round “Indian kill holes” lying about, perhaps in a pile or “midden” near the water. If a scatter of prehistoric pottery sherds is also evident on the surface, then voila! A new site has been discovered and is ready to spill its secrets.

The University of Florida team visited 17 small, outlying cays, most of which had never been visited by archaeologists. All of these are currently uninhabited and accessible only by boat. After six weeks of braving thigh-deep muck, large rock iguanas, and the repeated dive-bomb attacks of sky-darkening flocks of nesting sea birds, we were rewarded with the discovery of three previously unknown sites (see list above). Just as important is what we did not find: no sites were located on any of the larger cays east of Grand Turk and Cotton Cay, suggesting that despite their size, prehistoric peoples found Long Cay, East Cay, and Pear Cay too remote, with winds too high or seas too rough to warrant settlement.

We excavated two of these new sites, as well as four other small-cay sites that were known but had never before been sampled or evaluated. Our work at Pelican Cay off Middle Caicos yielded a wealth of exotic pottery and rich food remains that suggest the site was used by elite individuals as a retreat or getaway from the rigors of daily village life on the larger island.

conch-middensThe site on Middleton Cay near South Caicos covers almost the entire island, and is by far the largest small-cay site in the Turks & Caicos. At Middleton, conch was king, as evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of shells encountered throughout the island. Control of this precious resource, which provided not only a staple protein but also the raw material for manufacturing a wide variety of shell tools, very likely made Middleton the area’s commercial center sometime around 1200 AD.

The Spud site on Long Cay is a mere four kilometers row over the open bank from Middleton and appears to have been occupied around the same time. However, Spud is smaller, and the excavated evidence suggests that its residents were not as affluent as those at Middleton.

dove-cay-vesselThe Dove Cay site just off the south coast of South Caicos yielded a gorgeous imported ceramic vessel (see photo), suggesting that the island played a similar role as Pelican Cay — that of resort for local elite individuals — or perhaps functioned as a ritual center.

Across the Columbus Passage on the Turks Bank lie Gibbs Cay off Grand Turk and Cotton Cay between Grand Turk and Salt Cay. The sites on Gibbs Cay and Cotton Cay all appear to have been smaller, less intensive occupations, perhaps seasonal fishing villages periodically frequented by residents from Grand Turk or the Caicos.

Results from radiocarbon analysis are pending, but based on ceramic styles and other factors, it appears that the sites on Middleton, Spud, Dove and Gibbs cays were occupied as early as 1100 AD. The Cotton Cay sites were inhabited later, perhaps after 1400 AD. Pelican Cay is the real enigma — it appears to have been used sporadically from around 1100 AD up through modern times: Colonial pipe stems and the remains of European domesticated animals may have been left behind as recently as the 19th century.

While our analysis is far from complete, our work leads me to two general conclusions. First, that small cays played a far more important role in the settlement patterns and economies of the Turks & Caicos’ indigenous peoples than has previously been appreciated. The number of village sites on small cays now exceeds the number of such sites known to exist on either Salt Cay, Grand Turk, South Caicos, East Caicos, North Caicos or West Caicos. Second, it is apparent that substantial numbers of people began living in the Turks & Caicos earlier than is currently thought. The Middleton, Spud, Dove, Pelican and Gibbs sites all show evidence of being occupied as early as 1100 AD, which more than triples the number of sites in the Turks & Caicos thought to be associated with this time period, and suggests that a considerable migration into the Islands began as much as two centuries prior to the timeframe currently entertained by archaeologists.

Sadly, the indigenous people of the Turks & Caicos vanished shortly after the 1492 arrival of Europeans. Within a generation, an entire culture was wiped out by economic and demographic upheaval, Spanish slave raids and foreign diseases to which the Indians had no immunity. Archaeology remains the only means by which modern people can come to understand and appreciate the rich cultural tapestry of our island paradise’s first residents. I believe that our work will help illuminate the lives of those who strolled the beaches and bathed in the warm surf more than five centuries ago.

We have accomplished much, but there is still so much more to do. Stay tuned for updates on our progress.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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