Natural History

Blessed are the Beadmakers

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beadmanGrand Turk was the site of a prehistoric bead-making workshop.
Story & Photos By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

One of the long-forgotten beatitudes reads: “Blessed are the Beadmakers, for they shall inherit Grand Turk.” Ok, we invented this supposedly Biblical reference, but the point is that Caribbean archaeology is going through a major episode of reinterpretation. The archaeology of the Turks & Caicos has contributed greatly to the new information and new interpretations. One of our most exciting discoveries is the prehistoric bead-making workshop on Grand Turk (Amuana).

The tendency in writing history is to create a linear sequence of time, people and events. A led to B, B led to C, C led to D, etc., etc. Yet for every A, B and C there are literally thousands of other events and people running around at the same time. In Caribbean prehistory the prevailing interpretation is that Ostionan peoples developed into Meillacan peoples who then developed into Chican (Taino) peoples. We could explain these names, but they really are only placecards on the table of history. The bottom line of such a linear history is that everyone was the same during specific time periods. Yet where has that ever been true? Just look at the diversity of Caribbean peoples today, or, more close to home, the diversity of people who call themselves Turks Islanders!
In previous articles we have written about the Coralie site (GT-3), located on the west side of North Creek on Grand Turk. The site is the oldest in the Bahamian archipelago (founded circa AD 700) and contains a unique combination of animals and plants, many of which are no longer found in the Turks & Caicos. Archaeologists classify the site as belonging to the Ostionan period based on the style of pottery. Present evidence suggests that the site was abandoned for the final time in the mid 12th century.
In the mid-1980s Robert Power and Josiah Marvel were pressing the case for Grand Turk as Columbus’ first landfall. In doing so they were following in the footsteps of Gustavus Fox (Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy) and local historian Herbert “Bertie” Sadler (see Turks Island Landfall). The missing piece of evidence for their notion was Indian sites. Columbus stated that he had visited several villages on the island where he made landfall, which the native peoples called Guanahani. Evidence for a native occupation had not yet been found on Grand Turk despite previous archaeological surveys. In 1989 Keegan was invited to take a closer look. During the survey, an Indian site was found in the antennae field of what once was Radio Turk & Caicos, just north of the Governor’s residence (called “Waterloo”). The site is covered by sand that has accumulated in the past 800 years, and would not have been found if they hadn’t used a “ditch-witch” to lay copper grounding wires for the antennae. This discovery of the first recorded prehistoric archaeological site on Grand Turk excited the proponents for a Grand Turk landfall so much that they actually broke out Champagne to celebrate!
The site is called the Governor’s Beach site (GT-2), and over several years of excavations we showed that it was a shell bead-making workshop. The bad news for the Grand Turk landfall proponents is that it was abandoned almost 200 years before Columbus arrived. The site itself is relatively small, confined entirely to one beach dune north of Waterloo. Governor Bradley was kind enough to let us dig in his yard (and his wife hosted a luncheon for the crew!), but nothing was found on the Waterloo property or on the north side of the antennae field.
The pottery in both sites (GT-2 and GT-3) was manufactured in Hispaniola and people who came to extract the island’s rich resources brought the complete vessels to Grand Turk. However, the ways the pots were made and decorated are very different at the two sites: Coralie has exclusively Ostionan style pottery (red painted), while GT-2 has Meillacan style pottery (rectilinear incision). The activities undertaken and resources extracted at the two sites were also very different: at Coralie they harvested and processed meat, while at GT-2 they produced shell beads. In both cases, the items produced on Grand Turk became part of a larger trade (serra) network.
The people who occupied GT-2 inherited the island from the peoples who had been visiting the Coralie site for four centuries. It is possible that their visits overlapped, given very similar radiocarbon dates for the beginning and ending of the two sites (circa AD 1150). Also, a single potsherd in the Ostionan ceramic style was found in GT-2. Given how very different these two sites are, is it likely that the people who occupied the first site transformed gradually into the people who occupied the second?
GT-2 was a seasonal workshop where shells were collected and made into beads (who wouldn’t want a working vacation on Grand Turk?). Excavations recovered 1,600 complete disc-shaped beads, more than 6,000 shaped shell fragments in various stages of bead manufacture, and 12,000 pieces of scrap shell leftover from making the beads. The Spanish recorded the Taino word cacona to mean “glass bead,” but it also meant “reward.” Before European contact, the red shell beads were a very esteemed item and perhaps they were also called cacona. We also recovered conch shell columella tools that probably were used to break the shells into roughly rounded- out shapes, after which they would be perforated with a chert tipped drill, and lastly polished into a smooth disc. We recovered 567 pieces of imported white chert (flint), which the beadmakers brought with them from Hispaniola; 52 pieces of chert had been fashioned into drill bits.
Although 800 years old, the recovered beads are still amazing. Most of the beads were made from the small bivalve cherry jewelbox shell (Chama sarda), although conch shell beads (from Strombus gigas, Queen conch) were made as well. The Taino word for conch shell jewelry was cohibici, which is derived from the term for conch (cobo or cohobo). The smallest complete Chama bead was only 2.3 millimeters wide (roughly the size of the openings in a window screen) and almost equal to the width of the hole. Chama shells were selected because they have a deep red color that is retained even after the animal dies (although the shell will bleach to white in direct sunlight). Many of the beads we recovered retained a brilliant scarlet color. These bright red beads were easy to find in the sifter screens; our biggest problem was volunteer Barbara Toomey’s bright pink shoelaces, which made it difficult for those of us with depth-perception issues to focus on the red beads in the screen. The one Taino word we know for red is bija and it refers specifically to red body paint. For the Taino, red was the color of blood and thus, the color of life (bi), and also was associated with male virility.
The archaeological deposits at GT-2 are relatively thin so we were able to open a very wide area. In doing so we found a swath of midden (trash deposit) made up of small, burned limestone rocks. The amount of burned rock in this midden is impressive; on average a 1-x-1 meter area only 10 centimeters deep contained 400 rocks! In front of the midden, closer to the beach, we found four dark stains in the sand indicating the location of posts. The four posts formed a square measuring 3-x-3 meters, and were supports for some type of covered structure, likely a shelter from the sun and rain.
Inside this shelter we found six small circular areas, each measuring about 30 centimeters in diameter, which were perfectly level, extremely compact, and darker then the surrounding sand. We nicknamed them “mushrooms” because when we excavated around them, but left them intact, that is what they resembled. We identified 20 “mushrooms” in total. The six inside the shelter were organized in a circular pattern. Bead-making scrap clustered around the mushrooms. We had the soil from a “mushroom” analyzed, and the result was that it had a similar chemical composition as modern concrete. We concluded that the “mushrooms” were work surfaces manufactured from sand, salt water and burned and pulverized conch shell. All the burned rock in the site related to the burning of the conch shell. Conch lime such as this has been used historically in construction in the Turks & Caicos; here is an example of its use by prehistoric peoples.
Carlson did an experimental study of how the beads were made and she found that a hard surface to polish the beads against was vitally important, something like a large basalt stone basin (which doesn’t exist on Grand Turk; in fact there are no stones on Grand Turk that are harder than the shell). Everything necessary for making beads was improvised from this environment with the exception of the chert drills. The polishing blocks were manufactured and used as an abrasive surface upon which to polish the beads. They are an ingenious solution to the lack of hard stone on this island.
The midden itself contained no bead debitage. The bead scrap was found in “workshop areas” across the site. Different areas in the site focused on different parts of the bead making process—chert drill production, the shaping of shell bead blanks, drilling of the bead blanks, and lastly, stringing and polishing them into round discs. Under the covered shelter the beadmakers were working at polishing the finished beads.
taino-bead-necklaceOne strange thing about the Governor’s Beach site is that it contains very few food remains; only reef fishes and mostly grunts (chachicata). In contrast, the Coralie site has a lot of large animal remains. Had the environment of Grand Turk deteriorated so much in so few years that the new residents were reduced to eating only reef fish? Did the new arrivals have a different concept of cuisine? Were they so focused on the mission of producing beads that they could bring home to Haiti that they ate only “fast food” (netted reef fish from off the Governor’s Beach)?
The archaeological evidence indicates that Grand Turk never had permanent residents until the Bermudians arrived in the 17th century, therefore, there were never large villages of Lucayans on Grand Turk ready to greet Columbus. Nonetheless, the island was visited for centuries by itinerant merchants, fishermen, and craftspeople, who all exploited Grand Turk’s most important resources. In addition, the record left by these temporary residents proves that not all Tainos were alike.
Because the dates of the Coralie and Governor’s Beach sites slightly overlap, the question is, did the earlier group simply transform themselves into the later group, or were these entirely different cultures? We support the latter. The timing of their visitations is too close for one to have changed into the other. Furthermore, other groups were living on (at least) Middle Caicos at the same time. Today we call them Lucayans based on their distinctive pottery made from local materials. The burning of a string of complete, intact beads along with the abandonment of a working trumpet, effigy pottery vessels, and complete stone beads at GT-2 suggests conflict at the site and thus a rapid abandonment. It appears that hostilities between competing groups led to the abandonment of the site (people from Middle Caicos versus those who had arrived from Haiti?). Whatever happened, the notion that there was only one Taino people is misleading, especially given the evidence from Grand Turk.
The people at GT-2 produced beautifully crafted shell beads, which they brought back to Haiti. It is curious why people would make the beads on Grand Turk instead of just gather the Chama shell raw material and produce them closer to home. It is possible that the knowledge of how to make these uniform, small red disk beads was guarded information and that the beads could only be produced in isolation. The value of these brilliant red beads was enhanced by the fact that they came from across the sea and arrived complete and ready to be fashioned into jewelry or woven into sacred belts, baskets or effigies. One can imagine the chiefs upon the return of the canoes exclaiming, “Blessed are the beadmakers.”

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH), Jonesville, Florida.

Look for their new book, Talking Taino, published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380
ISBN -13: 978-0-8173-5508-1

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