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Cultural Connection

Archaeological study of new Grand Turk site links settlers through time.

By Betsy Carlson
Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum

For a week in February 2010, two archaeologists from Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH) out of Gainesville, Florida joined Neal Hitch of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and Brian Riggs of the National Environmental Center to do a preliminary study of an area on northwest Grand Turk known to contain a previously untested prehistoric archaeological site called GT-4. The goals of this initial survey were to find the boundaries of GT-4, characterize the site (who lived there and when) and identify specific activity areas (what inhabitants were doing there). During the survey, the remains of a historic structure from between 1780 and 1840 were identified. Also associated with the house were two freshwater collection basins that were hand-dug into the limestone bedrock. Because humans often choose to live in the same prime locations over time, one piece of land can contain evidence of many different settlements.

Beads from Grand Turk site

Beads from Grand Turk site

The archaeological survey began by digging a series of 50 cm shovel test pits at intervals of 25 meters across the property. Because it was believed that GT-4 could be a shell bead-making site similar to one excavated near Governor’s Beach in the 1990s (GT-2), all of the dirt from these test pits was screened through fine mesh (similar to window screening). The shell beads produced at GT-2 averaged 4 mm in diameter. The shovel testing at GT-4 identified bead-making activities, with one small area of the site containing only shell bead-making materials. A second area of the site contained habitation refuse including animal bones, broken shells, burned rocks from hearths, and pottery. Archaeologists refer to these types of remains as “middens,” which is another word for a garbage pile. A short history of Grand Turk prehistoric archaeology is in order to understand the significance of this new site.

Taíno traders of Grand Turk
The prehistoric peoples of the Bahamian archipelago were the Lucayans. They maintained close ties to the Taíno peoples of Hispaniola and Cuba throughout their history and traded extensively. Both Lucayan and Taíno settlements are found in the Turks & Caicos Islands, but only Taíno settlements have been identified on Grand Turk.

Lucayan pottery is called Palmetto ware and is recognized by its red color, crumbly texture, and burned, crushed conch shell added to the raw clay (called “temper”). Palmetto ware was made throughout the Bahamian archipelago, including the Caicos Islands, by approximately AD 1000.

Imported Taíno pottery can be easily recognized by rock tempers (commonly quartz and feldspar) not available in these limestone islands. Taino pottery was made from high quality clays and are hard, thin, and typically darker in color. Taíno pottery was commonly traded into Lucayan villages in this region. Lucayan sites have both imported pottery and Palmetto ware, but Palmetto ware will be dominant. Between AD 600 and 1500, there were three major types of pottery manufactured nearby in Hispaniola: Ostionan, Meillacan, and Chican. These styles have all been found in Turks & Caicos archaeology sites.

Grand Turk was first discovered by Taíno Indians from Hispaniola who traveled here to fish and hunt in approximately AD 700. Other resources were soon exploited. Salt was a valuable trade commodity readily available here as were colorful shells, which the Taíno manufactured into high status ornaments.

All the Grand Turk sites identified to date are short-term settlements where people gathered, processed a trade item, and returned to Hispaniola.

Grand Turk prehistoric sites
Four prehistoric archaeological sites have been recorded for Grand Turk. GT-1 is a small scatter of pottery that may have been associated with the nearby site of GT-2. GT-2 is a 13th century Taíno site that was a workshop for the production of small, red beads made from the cherry jewelbox shell. The site contained Meillacan pottery and only a few sherds of Palmetto ware, which was likely traded into GT-2 from Lucayans living on Middle Caicos. Excavations at GT-2 recovered 1,495 complete beads, 4,147 broken beads, 431 bead blanks, and chert (imported hard stone) used to drill the beads. These beads were made into jewelry and decorated baskets, belts, and clothing.

GT-3 is a regionally significant site because it is the earliest known settlement in the southern Bahamas (AD 700). The site contained only Ostionan style pottery. The unique character of the animal bones in this site points to the first human exploitation of this island. Evidence of over 1,000 individual animals was found at GT-3. Over half the individuals were terrestrial species such as rock iguanas, land tortoise, and birds, including two varieties of parrot. None of these species were found at the 13th century site of GT-2. It was thought that maybe the occupants of GT-3 overexploited the terrestrial species of Grand Turk to the point that they were no longer readily available for later Grand Turk occupants.

GT-4 is the fourth recorded prehistoric site on Grand Turk. In looking at the locations of these four sites, it is noteworthy that all are located within 1 km of the historic period water collection features called North and South Wells. The first use of these wells dates to the Bermudan period and they are still used today to water livestock. Perhaps these wells were built where a freshwater lens naturally collected. Access to fresh water has always been a primary factor in site location.

What we know about GT-4
First of all, we know GT-4 is a Taíno site because testing recovered 19 ceramics, all but one of which are imported and several are Meillacan in style. A single tiny Palmetto sherd was recovered that was likely produced in the Caicos Islands. This shows some interaction between the Grand Turk visitors and the people living permanently in the Caicos Islands.

Some of this pottery was burned on the exterior showing that these vessels were used to prepare meals. The midden — the trash deposit where much of the pottery was found — contained many fragments of burned limestone, which result from hearth building and cooking activities. Burned rocks and black soil are often the most visible elements of prehistoric archaeological sites. The sand turns black from burned materials being placed in the trash midden, including charcoal, and from decaying organic materials such as food remains.

This midden contained substantial numbers of shells and animal bones, which are the remains of meals. A single shovel test produced 357 bone fragments and 73 pieces of shell. During the project, a field laboratory was set up and all of the animal bones were identified and quantified. The site contained the remains of three species of reptiles, 14 species of fish, and 21 marine shell species. The reptiles (sea turtle, rock iguana, and giant tortoise) are notable because these animals were common at the colonization period site of GT-3, but until now had not been identified elsewhere on this island. The dominant foods in GT-4 were parrotfish and conch. Conch shells with a round hole near the spire are a common prehistoric site indicator in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Charcoal was recovered from the midden and submitted for radiocarbon dating. GT-4 dates to the 13th century AD and was occupied at the same general time as GT-2. Like GT-2, we know that GT-4 was occupied by bead-makers.

GT-4 shell bead-makers
To understand the bead forms recovered at GT-4, a basic explanation of how these beads were manufactured follows below.

Taino bead making tool

Taino bead making tool

The first step after collecting the jewelbox shells (from the beach or from the coral reefs where they live) is to reduce them into roundish disks. This is accomplished by using the sharp semi-circular end of the extracted central column of a queen conch shell. The next step is to smooth the two sides of the curved valve into a flat bead blank by polishing them against a flat surface. Using a hand drill fitted with a chert tip, each blank is perforated. Finally, the edges of the beads are polished by rolling a string of beads across a flat, abrasive surface.

Across the site, nine whole beads, 33 broken beads, five pieces of chert, and 76 pieces of bead-making scrap were recovered from shovel testing. Importantly, a shell bead-making activity area was isolated that contained no evidence of kitchen-related activities (e.g., bone, fire-cracked rock, charcoal). Beads were being produced at GT-4 in a specialized area that was kept separate from other daily activities. Walking between the cooking/living/sleeping areas of the site and the bead-making area of the site is the equivalent of checking in at the office for a day of work.

Since GT-4 was occupied at the same general time period as GT-2, the activities seen here may be part of the larger-scale bead-making activities at GT-2. It is curious that very little food was processed or thrown away at GT-2 (only grunt and a few parrotfish were recovered). Perhaps the food processing activities seen at GT-4 supported the work being carried out at GT-2.

From this first glance, GT-4 reminds us of both GT-2 (the bead-making site) and GT-3 (the colonization period site). GT-4 contains evidence of bead manufacture for export, along with exploitation of turtle, iguana, and fish. Also, there is minor evidence (one Palmetto sherd) for interaction with people living in the Caicos Islands. In this sense, GT-4 differs from previously studied Grand Turk sites and expands on our knowledge of the prehistoric use of this island.

Historic site near GT-4

Artifacts from historic farmstead on Grand Turk

Artifacts from historic farmstead on Grand Turk

In addition to the Taíno site described above, a historic farmstead was identified just north of GT-4. The remains of a structure were identified from a rise of dense limestone rocks, some of which appeared squared. Scattered around the rocks were a few conch, fragments of historic glass and ceramics, and a small amount of brick and mortar. One piece of mortar had board impressions. The structure would have been made of stone with wood frames in the doors and windows, and a brick chimney or oven. Four nails were found, but no roofing material or window glass was recovered.

Several small piles of rocks were noted in the surrounding area that appear to be the result of clearing fields for agriculture. The recovery of a single pig molar shows that the past residents of this area were raising animals in addition to farming and fishing.

From careful study of the ceramic collection, the occupation has an estimated date range of 1780 to 1840. The population of Grand Turk in 1781 was recorded at 921 persons, 805 of whom were Bermudans who came annually to rake salt and then returned to Bermuda. Those other 100 or so people were likely living on small farmsteads scattered across the Grand Turk hills.

Grand Turk historic water pit

Grand Turk historic water pit

Approximately 80 meters southeast of the structure are two limestone basins that were literally gouged out of the bedrock with hand tools. The features are located at the base of an exposed bedrock ridge where water would have naturally drained and appear to have been used exclusively as water collection (catchment) systems. Remnants of glass and stoneware bottles and jars surround the basins that date to the same period as the historic structure. It appears that the people living in the stone structure constructed these catchment basins to provide a closer water source than North Wells in times of abundant rainfall.

Cultural connections
What connects the various people who have lived on Grand Turk in the past is that they all attempted to support themselves off its natural resources. Whatever your cultural background, all people have issues finding potable water on a dry, limestone island. How these challenges are met connects everyone who has lived in the Turks & Caicos throughout all periods of occupation.

At the same time, this island has always had riches to offer the people willing to travel here. The Taíno first recognized and benefited from the abundant resources of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Food sources have always been plentiful in Grand Turk’s waters, but in prehistoric times the terrestrial environment also offered rich sources of meat. Bright red shell beads were a key item in the Taíno political system — important enough to be manufactured in a faraway place and be imported as complete beads to Hispaniola. In this context, the beads became a gift from another world and were highly valued. The Bermudans also traveled annually a long way from their home to extract the gift of salt from Grand Turk, and continued to do so for over 100 years.

The true Turks Islander was not born until people settled permanently on this island. These settlers faced the same environmental challenges as those who had temporarily resided before them, and reaped many of the same rewards. In this way, Turks Islanders are the direct cultural ancestors of all the people who have lived on the island before them.



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