Archimedes, Archaeology & Artifacts

“Old Heads” come to the rescue to solve the mystery of the screw.

Story & Photo By Sherlin Williams

I’ve been doing projects at the National Museum on Grand Turk for the last 15 years or so. I rebuilt the mechanism that used to turn the light in Grand Turk’s lighthouse. Then I worked on making a detailed record of the iron parts of a windmill that we fished out of a salina and brought back to the Museum. I also helped make plaster casts from rubber moulds of the inscriptions on Sapodilla Hill.

When I heard the Museum was interested in the salt industry and windmills, I volunteered my services as a guide and interpreter. You see, when I grew up on Grand Turk, salt was still king—but he was a shadow of his former self. Even then, a lot of the ponds were in service so I watched how they did it. It’s a lot more complicated than people think! There was a lot of engineering involved, and a lot of maintenance, too!

For example, every windmill had to have a brakeman. He paid attention to the wind because if it blew too strong he had to apply the brake to slow the mill down or stop it altogether so it wouldn’t just fly apart. When you look at the Town Salina now, all you see are dirty water and a few rocks and posts sticking out here and there. But back when salt was king it ran like clockwork! The walls between the pans were watertight and wide enough to make paths along their tops. You can’t see them now because they’re always underwater, but there are wooden troughs that used to connect various ponds. They crisscross each other like overpasses on the freeway! The flow was controlled with wooden gates. Everything had to be made out of wood, even the fastenings, because the high concentration of salt would dissolve iron like butter.
I’m more knowledgeable than most folks about the salinas, but three years ago Dr. Donald Keith took me to see something that had me absolutely stumped. It was in the overgrown yard of an unoccupied house, buried in the bush, but I could tell it looked like a 16 1/2 foot long wooden screw about a foot in diameter with copper sheathing tacked to the outer edges of the screw.

Oswald Francis with the Archimedes screw

Oswald Francis with the Archimedes screw

You could see the tool marks that proved it was hand- carved out of the heartwood of a single tree. The wood must have been incredibly tough because it showed little deterioration, and although it was mounted on two concrete pylons about 10 feet apart, it showed no sag whatsoever. Whoever made it really knew what they were doing. But what was it, and where did it come from? Don said he heard it was used somehow in the salt industry and that it used to be on Salt Cay, but that was just a guess. The first time he saw it was more than 20 years ago, but no one knew how old it was. He was trying to get it donated to the Museum but these things take time.
After Hurricane Ike I kept thinking about the screw and wondering if it had been destroyed like so many other things on Grand Turk. Then, last September, I got the chance to find out. I heard Don was back on-island, working at the Museum, so I dropped in to see him. “Whatever happened to that wooden screw thing we went to see a few years ago?” I asked. “It’s still there, I think,” he said. “And the owner is willing to donate it to the Museum.” The problem, he said, is how to get it back to the Museum? “It’s long and heavy, but it might be fragile. It might break up if we don’t do it right.” Eventually we talked ourselves into going for it.
A few days later, armed with bushwhacking tools, sledgehammers and chisels, we set out during the hottest part of a September Saturday to “liberate” the screw. When we got there and cleared the bush away we discovered to our relief that the artifact was still in great condition. Chiseling it free of its concrete supports without damaging it took a little longer but eventually it was free. It was heavier than we expected, but fortunately very strong.
Faced with the daunting task of lugging it a couple of hundred yards uphill to get it to the Museum’s pickup, Don approached a group of Chinese construction workers nearby for assistance. They readily agreed to help. The $20 bill he gave them might have had something to do with it, but I think they would have helped us anyway. They were curious about the strange contraption, too. We got the feeling they didn’t need our help so we stayed out of their way and contented ourselves with taking pictures. Up the hill they went chanting cadence all the way to our truck. I sat in the bed to stabilize the artifact while Don drove very slowly back to the Museum.
So now the artifact was safely stored in the Museum, but we still didn’t know much about it. Don said this was almost like an archaeological dig where you find something and you know it’s important, but you don’t know what it is or what it did. We had no clues other than what it looked like: an Archimedes screw, most commonly installed inside a pipe or conduit and used to lift large volumes of water with relatively little effort.
Detailed descriptions of how to carve such a screw date back more than 2,000 years, so we know how it was made, but what did it do? One theory was that it was used to crush salt, but it didn’t look rugged enough to do that and it didn’t show much wear. Could it have been used to move salt on an incline to create a mound? But how would it have worked? What provided the necessary force of rotation? None of these theories were particularly credible.
The logical first step was to inquire around among the “Old Heads” of Grand Turk to see if anyone recognized the artifact. When I spoke to Mr. Clarence Simmons, age 85, who used to work in the ponds at Salt Cay, he remembered the screw and told me it did not come from Salt Cay but was made right here on Grand Turk half a century ago by Kenneth Manuel and Lewis Earnest. I also showed Maurice Hanschell a picture of the screw. He remembered it, but like Clarence couldn’t remember what function it performed. Then I called Oswaldo Ariza, Grand Turk’s “walking history book,” who confirmed that it was made on Grand Turk by Kenneth Manuel at the Government workshop beside Pond Street. I was surprised to find out that the screw was made here instead of being imported. But it served as a reminder of the high degree of professionalism and self-reliance it took to keep the wheels of the salt industry spinning.
How it was used was still a mystery. I finally checked with Mr. Oswald “King Oz” Francis. Now 93 years old, he used to be the Assistant Production Manager for TISCO (the Turks Island Salt Company). When I showed him the picture and asked if he knew it, he said “Oh ya, Kenneth Manuel made this, right down there in the Government garage.” He went on to explain that after the salt trade began to decline on Grand Turk, TISCO was taken over by the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC).
Turks Island Salt was a brand well-known worldwide, but we were no longer a volume exporter. As part of an attempt to reinvent itself as a producer of high-quality table salt, the CDC commissioned Kenneth Manuel, a skilled woodworker who also made boats and cart wheels, to create an experimental apparatus for that purpose. The screw is the only part of that apparatus that remains. Hand-cranked horizontally in a trough filled with a slurry of salt and water, the screw acted as an “agitator” to produce crystal clear table salt in small quantities that could be marketed at a much higher price. But it was too little, too late to save the industry. “People from all over the globe used to come here to buy salt,” Mr. Francis observed, sadly. “Now we have to import it.”
There are things that never make it into the history books—things known only to the “Old Heads” because they were never written down anywhere. Were it not for them, we would never have known where the screw came from or what it was for. This is why we need oral histories. For the last half-century, there has been little interest in preserving Grand Turk’s salt ponds, windmills or anything else associated with the salt industry that made these Islands famous.
But now there is renewed interest in Grand Turk’s unique salt history. Plans are being laid to replicate a functioning windmill using photographs and detailed plans that the Museum made of the last, best preserved example before it was torn down by Public Works a decade ago. The Museum is planning to replace some of its older exhibits with one devoted to King Salt. Eventually the screw “agitator” will become part of this exhibit. Perhaps, with the help of the “Old Heads,” we will be able to reconstruct the entire machine—and even test it to see how well it worked!

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