Carved Histories

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duho-faces-large-fig-6Ceremonial duhos from the Turks & Caicos Islands

Story & Photos By Dr. Joanna Ostapkowicz

During the second half of the 19th century, nine elaborate wooden ceremonial stools — or duhos —were recovered from caves in the Turks & Caicos Islands. In their time (ca. AD 1000–1500), these low stools — often carved in the form of a creature on fore-shortened limbs, the head between its two front legs — were among the most recognisable symbols of chiefly authority, distinguishing those whose privilege it was to own them. They were indispensible during ceremonies and political situations, when being seated on a duho not only elevated and set the individual apart, but also linked them to the supernatural, the source of knowledge and power. These were coveted objects — prized in gift exchanges between high-ranking individuals — such as the 14 duho presented by the Haitian cacica (chieftess) Anacaona to Bartolomé Columbus in 1496. Many became personal items, intimately linked with their owner even in death — an early 16th century Spanish account mentions the burial of a cacique (chief) seated on his duho. The few that survived have been found in caves, seemingly secreted away for safekeeping.

Sometime before 1893, two duhos went on display at the newly opened Victoria Library on Grand Turk. The date and other circumstances surrounding their discovery are unknown, although it is believed that they were found together with the two wooden platters also displayed at the library. One was a substantial “high-back,” the other smaller and damaged, missing its hind legs and “tail.” They were to remain on display until the late 1970s, when they were stolen from the library and sold to private collectors. Their whereabouts remained unknown until 2003, when one of the pieces came to light, and was successfully repatriated back to Grand Turk (see Astrolabe Spring 2004). It is currently on display at the Turks & Caicos National Museum (TCNM), the only duho to remain in a public collection on the Islands. A new study, developed in cooperation with the TCNM and supported by the Getty Foundation, aims to explore the history of this national treasure in greater detail.
Discovery, display and disappearance:
a brief duho history
The first published reference to the TCNM duho was made in Frederick Ober’s 1893 book, In the Wake of Columbus, which noted several duhos on display at the Public Library, Grand Turk. The library had officially opened some four years previously, in 1889, and appears to have been the main public venue on the Islands for displays of Lucayan artefacts until the opening of the TCNM museum in 1991. It is unclear exactly when the duhos entered the collections, who donated them, how many there were, or where they were found, as any relevant archival records kept in the library were lost to water and termite damage in the early 1990s. However, at the time, cave guano “mining” was a thriving business on the Islands — especially on East and Middle Caicos — and several chance discoveries of Lucayan material, including rare wooden artefacts, were made as a result. Other reported finds were made by people simply exploring caves — two impressive duhos, now in the Smithsonian Institution, were recovered by Providenciales residents from local caves in the late 1870s.
Over the following years, reports by archaeologists such as Theodoor de Booy (1913) and Julian Granberry (1955) noted the pieces on display in the library, but only described them briefly. Photos emerged in the 1950s and 60s, including one that shows the librarian, Lloyd Roberts, sitting on the larger duho. By February 1974, concerns were being raised about the security of the displays: the Canadian newspaper Ingersoll Times featured an article entitled, “Island heirlooms in need of protection.” At the time, the duho was displayed in a “rickety glass-fronted cabinet” that wouldn’t close properly, in a building that had no locks. Given the rumour that the Smithsonian Institution had offered a substantial amount for the duho, concerns were raised over “why so valuable a chair [could still be] handled by the public.”
By this time, there was a growing awareness of the importance — and value — of the objects: indeed, in 1974 TCI’s Philatelic Bureau issued a stamp series featuring three of the library artefacts on their 10, 18 and 35 cent stamps (above). Surprisingly, an illustration of the large, complete duho — the highlight of the collections — is missing from the set. Instead, one of the Smithsonian duhos recovered in the 1870s from Providenciales features on the 6 cent stamp. Our last — and clearest — glimpse of all the wooden pieces before their disappearance from the library is a series of 25 colour photographs on file at the TCNM, taken by the archaeologist Shaun Sullivan in 1976/77 (at right). These show all four wooden artefacts photographed together and individually, as well as images of four stone celts and five ceramic lugs that may also have been part of the library’s collection.
The theft of the duhos and platters from the library in the late 1970s was a major loss not only to the Turks & Caicos islands and the wider Caribbean region, but to the world’s cultural heritage. So few of these pieces survive —and each has a unique and invaluable story to tell — that each loss is significant, diminishing our understanding of the Caribbean past. It was subsequently learned that they were stolen to order by an American collector (Astrolabe Spring 2004), this disappearance into private hands undermining the civic spirit of their original display in the library. The return of the large duho in 2003, and its prominent display in the TCNM, has sparked the hope that the other pieces might also be found and returned, to be interwoven back into the histories of the Islands.

Lucayan wooden artefacts
from the Turks & Caicos
The library pieces join only a handful of other wooden artefacts known from the Turks & Caicos — several duhos and large wooden bowls, an axe with a wooden handle and a fine paddle. Of these, two remain in public collections on the Islands — the duho and paddle currently displayed in the TCMN. The rest are dispersed in major US museums: three are housed at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (two at the National Museum of Natural History and one at the National Museum of the American Indian) and one is held at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Apart from the paddle, which was discovered in 1996, all pieces were found within a few years of each other — from about 1874 until the 1890s — a time when guano mining was at its height on the Islands.
It was also a period of great interest in the region’s archaeology, when artefacts were coming to light and garnering international interest, such as the display of Lucayan material in the Jamaica Exhibition of 1891. Influential individuals, among them commissioners and governors, were vying with each other to acquire these pieces of island history, often with the aim of sending them to museums. For example, Mr. Frith, a resident of Grand Turk, had two duhos in his possession in 1876, intending to deposit one in the British Museum and the other in the Smithsonian Institution. But local politics —especially his soured relations with the island’s British Commissioner over the ownership of the duhos — dissuaded him from sending one to London (Frith, 2nd April 1897, letter on file at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.).
Of the nine duhos currently known from the Turks & Caicos Islands, four have long, extended backs (termed “high-backs”), two are low-backs and the styles of three are, unfortunately, unknown. Three are reportedly from Providenciales, two from Middle Caicos, one from East Caicos, while information for the remaining three is somewhat obscure, but suggestive of Grand Turk.  Unfortunately, none of the duhos were recovered from an archaeological context, so any associated information has been lost, and in some instances valuable evidence was thrown out — such as the human remains apparently associated with two duhos from Conch Bar, Middle Caicos. Also, some of the pieces have conflicting information as to provenance, making it difficult to conclusively unravel their complex histories.

The Lucayan legacy: a unique heritage
Lucayan duhos, both those from TCI and the Bahamas, share broad similarities with their Hispaniolan (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rican and Cuban counterparts, but feature a stylistic cohesion suggestive of a local style, something entirely unique to the archipelago. They are substantial carvings — many measuring over a meter in length — the largest duhos from the entire Caribbean region. Their distinctive features include, for those with extended backs, a long, gently tapering “tail” extension that remains fairly low to the ground and a narrow, terminal end that is cut horizontally across the tip. Those that do not feature the tail are carved with a deeply arched centre ending with a curved terminal end immediately above the hind legs. The facial features of the human and animal-like heads appear more rounded and artistically freeform than the highly stylised and angular conventions seen in southern duhos. In addition, some of the Turks & Caicos examples feature among the most complex and elaborate two-dimensional design panels seen in any Caribbean duhos.  It is fair to say that the elaboration of the duho reached new heights among the Lucayans.
Given that only about 80 wooden duhos are currently known — the majority from Hispaniola and Puerto Rico —the fact that the Turks & Caicos yielded at least nine examples is a reflection of the important role of the Islands within the wider Caribbean context. The Lucayan caciques who commissioned and used these seats were clearly integrated into a wider circum-Caribbean chiefly iconography and ideology — utilising them to establish and reaffirm their central role as powerful leaders, with links to the larger islands to the south. Shared use of resources, trade and quite possibly political alliances bound the Lucayans to their Taíno neighbours: high-status goods circulated between the islands (such as the impressive stone pendant currently on display at the TCNM), and people travelled between islands to harvest turtles and fish, and to make use of specific resources such as seen in the shell bead manufacturing site of GT2. Archaeological investigations over the last few decades are changing our understanding of pre-Hispanic lifeways on the islands, suggesting that these were not isolated island communities, but were engaged with one another in a wide network of relations.
How can the TCNM duho contribute to building our understanding of this complex picture, especially as it has so little associated information? The research currently underway looks at the information inherent in the object itself, identifying the wood it was carved from, where it may have come from, how it was carved and its age. Despite today’s predominantly dry, low-lying scrub vegetation, in the past the Islands had a great variety of trees, including such durable hardwoods as guayacan (Guaiacum sp.) and mahogany (Swietenia mahogani), which still survive in some areas. Such dense woods are often a challenge for today’s carvers, even with their metal tools, so their selection by the Lucayans provides insights into the level of indigenous carving skills and craftsmanship. The geochemical “signature” of the wood, studied through stable isotope analysis, can provide information about the environment in which the tree originally grew, potentially determining whether the piece was indeed made on the same island on which it was found. A radiocarbon date provides an indication of when the tree was felled, hence the age of the carving. The results for these analyses will be forthcoming soon. Collectively, this information will offer not only specific insights into the piece itself, but enhance our understanding of the place of the TCI duhos in the wider corpus of Caribbean wooden sculpture. Over 50 carvings from the Caribbean region have been selected for this study — including four other TCI duhos — and comparing the information gained from each will open new avenues into the study of Lucayan heritage.
Although many of these analyses are still underway, there are other aspects to the TCNM duho that provide more immediate insights on how the object must have looked when originally used. The eyes, ears and mouth of the anthropomorphic face show evidence of resins, which would have held a bright, lustrous inlay of shell or possibly guanin (a gold-copper alloy). The wood surface appears quite bleached from exposure to the elements after its deposit, but shows small areas of dark pigment suggesting that the piece may have once been stained. This darker surface would have contrasted dramatically with the inlays, making a visually striking display when the duho was brought out for use. The lack of two-dimensional design panels may suggest that other, more perishable decorative elements may have been added to the surface, such as woven cotton bands.
The duho is also impressive in size — the third largest currently known — with unusually high legs and back. The posture of the four-legged creature, as if leaning forward under the weight of the sitter, and its intense expression, all suggest a finely crafted, well curated object that would have been present at every important event its owner took part in.
Now, some 500 years later, it is central to another display — taking its place among the most important pieces of island heritage at the Turks & Caicos National Museum. From its recent repatriation back to the Islands, to its ancient “life,” it has many stories to tell, and with careful investigation these will emerge.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, are by Joanna Ostapkowicz, and were taken as part of the Pre-Hispanic Caribbean Sculpture project, funded by the Getty Foundation.

Acknowledgements: Over the years, the staff at TCNM — Dr. Neal Hitch, Deborah Annema, Nigel Sadler and Brian Riggs — have been most generous with their time and assistance during my previous correspondences with the museum, and my recent visit to study the duho.


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Mary Jane Berman
Dec 13, 2009 16:43

Fascinating research! Have the dates been published? Have the woods been identified?
If so, where can we find the information?

Ed Grice
Jul 25, 2010 17:56

The Duhos Mr. Frith had, where did they end up?
Which Mr. Frith was it? Was it Benjamin Charles the salt producer?
How do I get a copy of the letter written by Mr. Frith?

Mary Jane Berman
Feb 13, 2011 15:08

Any report? Fascinating study, can’t wait to read the findings.

Eduardo Estebanez
Dec 19, 2011 13:58

Where can I get more information about the results of the study?
I am a fanatic of Caribbean history, specially Taino and Lucayan,

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