Written in Stone

Saving rock inscriptions on Sapodilla Hill, Providenciales

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

It’s 2 PM on Friday, December 10, and I’m sweating bullets. Not just because it’s hot but because with only 18 hours to go before we’re scheduled to remove 40 fragile boulders covered with ancient inscriptions from the top of Sapodilla Hill on Providenciales, I’ve got nothing: no people, no equipment, no vehicles and only one option left—call the whole thing off. Instead, I go to see Mr. Ken Adams, owner and president of Building Materials Do It Center, to ask if he could loan the project a wheelbarrow and maybe some old timbers. He’s in his office, busily poring over some paperwork. This is not going to work, I think, but make my pitch anyway: the National Museum, the DECR, and some volunteers are trying to rescue a ton of boulders covered with names and dates because they are being destroyed. We need some way to carry them from the top of Sapodilla Hill down a rocky trail to the nearest road and then transport them to the other side of Provo, and it all has to be done tomorrow because we already asked the press to be there and we don’t want to look like idiots. He takes it all in, picks up his cell phone and says “Follow me.” He leads me through the Do It Center and into the cavernous building materials warehouse, calling people on his cell and querying various employees simultaneously. We step outside just as Mr. Chris Haggie, manager of AND Construction drives up. Ken introduces us. Far from being irritated by a request on Friday afternoon for help on Saturday morning, Chris says “Glad to help. We were kind of surprised we hadn’t heard from you after that last job.” I realize he’s referring to the time last year when AND Construction moved an ancient cannon and anchor donated to the Museum to our facility at Grace Bay. They have a brief chat then Ken turns to me and says, “OK, It’s all set.” I gape at him, incredulously. Fifteen minutes earlier I had been ready to throw in the towel, now it’s all set: people, vehicles, and equipment will meet me at Sapodilla Hill Saturday morning at 8 AM. As he turns to leave, Ken says “Next time, call us first!” It’s demonstrations of community support like this that keep the Museum—and me!—going in the mission to preserve the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Rock inscription from Sapodilla Hill, Providenciales

Rock inscription from Sapodilla Hill, Providenciales

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inscriptions on bedrock outcrops occur in several locations in the Turks & Caicos Islands, but are most prolific at Sapodilla Hill on Providenciales. The inscriptions there include scores of names of people and ships, dates, and symbols, as well as depictions of houses and boats. Centuries ago ships followed Sand Bore Channel across the Caicos Bank to anchor in Sapodilla Bay, just as they do today. The sandy bottom of the bay meant that ships could come very close to shore to discharge or take on cargo and passengers in the lee of Sapodilla Hill. Old maps show that there were wells near Five Cays where fresh water could be obtained. From the top of the hill, ships’ officers, passengers and on-lookers could oversee activities in the anchorage in relative comfort—and wile away the hours by etching names, dates, images and other information into the soft rocks.
More than a decade ago, the Turks & Caicos National Museum initiated a series of projects to photograph, map, mold and cast some two dozen of the oldest, most significant, and most dramatic inscriptions. The casts of some of these may be seen on a wall in the ticketing area of the Providenciales International Airport. These tasks required a great deal of effort but ultimately achieved the goal of making a permanent record of this important historical resource. Meanwhile, ongoing archival research into the names and dates of the people who left their mark continues to reveal who these early settlers were and what attracted them to Sapodilla Hill.
Fast forward to August 2010. During a meeting at the Environmental Center, I gave a slide presentation to representatives of the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR), the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, the STAR Foundation and concerned individuals during which I demonstrated that although Sapodilla Hill has largely been ignored for the past 250 years, the incidence of vandalism, graffiti and even theft of some of the “portable” stones has reached alarming proportions. Afterward, we agreed to join forces to devise a plan to save what is left.
Inscribed stones overlook Sapodilla Bay

Inscribed stones overlook Sapodilla Bay

This was easier said than done. In the first place, although the site is officially designated as an Area of Historical Interest, the stones lie on private property. So the first order of business would be to precisely delineate where the inscribed stones are and pass an ordinance effectively “nationalizing” their location.
The second challenge was how to protect the site without destroying its visitor appeal. A good first step would be to place signs at the head of the trail leading to the top of the hill advising visitors of the importance of the site and proper etiquette to observe while visiting it. If clearly marked trails were laid out, visitors would not have to walk on the inscriptions as they explored the site. These steps would protect the bedrock inscriptions that cannot be moved.
But fully half the inscriptions are on portable rocks in danger of being stolen—what would happen to them? In the past, I resisted the suggestion that portable stones should be removed and stored in a safe place, because to do so would separate them from their geographical context—their connection with Sapodilla Hill and the sea. But it was now clear that leaving them in place would be irresponsible and virtually guarantee their destruction. The portable stones would have to be removed. Once in a safe location, the inscriptions could be moulded and cast under laboratory conditions. Mr. Wesley Clerveaux, director of the DECR, suggested that three-dimensional replicas of the portable stones could be made and returned to Sapodilla Hill while the originals could become part of an exhibit in the Museum’s planned Provo facility. A workable plan was starting to emerge.
The only problem was that there was no money in anyone’s budget to pay for it! Undeterred, we soldiered on. The first step was for DECR Officer Rodriguez Ewing and me to guide a government surveyor up to Sapodilla Hill with the proper DGPS equipment to delineate the borders of the site precisely. This would be necessary in order to protect it legally. Armed with this information, the DECR could start the process of affording the site official protection and advise the property owners of our intentions. Meanwhile, back at DECR headquarters, Dr. Eric Salamanca assumed responsibility for designing the visitor welcome and etiquette signs.
Clearly, the hard part was going to be figuring out how to get the 40 portable stones—some of which weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds—off the top of the hill and into safe storage without damaging them or killing ourselves in the process! With fingers crossed, Saturday, December 11 was selected as D-day, but in the week leading up to it the plan began to fall apart. In order to do the entire job in one day we needed vehicles, wooden beams, slings or nets, and most of all, people. A call went out over the news services for volunteers, but it just wasn’t coming together.
AND Construction team and volunteers

AND Construction team and volunteers

By Friday afternoon, I had permission to borrow a truck, a trailer, and a wheelbarrow, but still no labor. On the verge of calling the whole thing off, the project was saved in the eleventh hour when Ken Adams of the Do It Center and Chris Haggie of AND Construction cheerfully volunteered to provide everything we needed. At 8 AM the next morning, the AND Construction team and Ken Adams himself arrived with vehicles, equipment and 14 strong workers and immediately began the heavy lifting. Because the path from the top of the hill is steep, rocky, narrow and impassable for any type of motorized vehicle, the largest stones were carried in “stretchers” cleverly made of heavy fabric slung between 2 X 4 beams. In just four hours the team carried all 40 of the movable stones more than 100 meters to the nearest road. There, the largest stones were thickly padded with heavy insulation material and loaded onto AND Construction’s flatbed truck. The remaining stones were placed in the trunks and back seats of four private vehicles for the slow, cautious trip to the Museum’s facility in Grace Bay where they were off-loaded for storage until the next phase of the project begins. Amazingly, there was no damage to the stones or injuries among the work crew.
The portable stones are now safely stored, but there is still work to be done on Sapodilla Hill to protect the inscriptions that cannot be moved. We have yet to place signs at the top and bottom of the hill informing visitors that the site is protected by law and proper etiquette requires that visitors may “look but do not touch.” Gravel trails need to be laid out around the inscriptions so that visitors will be able to see them without walking on them. Small signs need to be installed adjacent to certain inscriptions to draw attention to them and to provide more information. Although we moulded some of the bedrock inscriptions in 1998, we ran out of time and materials before we could finish the job. The Museum has applied for grants to fund the completion of this Phase Two aspect of the project.
In order to carry out Phase Three, the most difficult, time-consuming, and expensive part of the Sapodilla Hill Project, the Museum again will have to seek outside financial support from individuals, foundations, companies, and granting agencies. This part of the project will entail making three-dimensional moulds of all the portable stones so that we can produce replica casts of them. The materials list involved in moulding and casting is quite extensive and includes cleaning agents, releasing agents, modeling clay, several different polymer resins, chopped fiberglass, accelerators, hardeners, ammonium chloride, pigments and gypsum, to name but a few. Fortunately, the procedures and materials for moulding the original stones without damaging them and making casts stronger and more durable than the original limestone are something I worked out many years ago. Following casting, replicas of the portable stones will be returned to Sapodilla Hill and securely installed in their original positions along with interpretive plaques providing additional information identifying the people and symbols appearing in the inscriptions.
But is this site really worth so much effort? Yes, because it is a unique, absolutely authentic historical document in clear and present danger. Unlike the modern, inane graffiti hurriedly slashed into the rocks, many of the old inscriptions are artistically and carefully made. Sometimes additional information is provided in the form of a Mason’s symbol, the British Broad Arrow, a date, the rendering of a flag, a ship’s name, or the image of a ship or a building. These are helpful clues that make it possible to identify the scribe.
The earliest date appearing anywhere in the TCI is found on Sapodilla Hill: May 10, 1767. Furthermore, the inscriptions read like a “Who’s Who” in the Turks & Caicos during the 19th century. Most are common local names found in today’s telephone directory: Robinson, Butterfield, Taylor, Selver, Forbes and Smith. But there are other names that were once prominent but no longer common: Harriott, Frith, Coverley, Baker, Whynns, Aubry, and Balfour. Curiously, many names are more closely connected to the Turks Islands than to the Caicos Islands, at least historically. Several inscriptions can be attributed to specific 19th century officials: W.R. Inglis was the second president of the Turks & Caicos serving between 1854 and 1862. Oliver Mungen was the United States consul to the Turks & Caicos from 1868 to 1869. He inscribed his name next to that of Thomas Whynns, who held the same office decades earlier.
Today, if you stand on top of Sapodilla Hill and look to the east you see South Dock, Provo’s bustling commercial port. Looking to the west you see a coastline studded with new houses and roads. Were it not for the inscribed stones at your feet you would have no way of knowing that Sapodilla Bay was an important nexus for trade, communication and commerce in the Islands for at least a century and a half during a period for which virtually no records of what was happening in the Caicos Islands exist. All over the Islands, modern development is transforming the landscape and occasionally erasing important connections with the past. For the native population it is not an impersonal past—it is their history.
And so it is fitting that the enthusiastic involvement of Mr. Ken Adams of the Do It Center made it possible to save the remaining portable inscriptions. Ironically, one of the inscriptions that disappeared since I recorded it 15 years ago was the most poignant. Inside an elaborate border it contained the name of John Forbes together with the only woman’s name to appear among the inscriptions, “ISABEL ADAMS.” Sweethearts? Lovers? Someone’s ancestors? a
The National Museum wishes to thank Chris Haggie and the entire AND Construction crew, photographer David Stone, architect Jeff Lee, National Trust volunteers Duncan, Fraser and Sally Hutt, and innocent bystanders Tom and Jill Linette, two tourists from Allentown, Pennsylvania who stopped by to see the inscriptions but pitched in immediately when they saw we needed help.

POSTSCRIPT: Now that there is a clear plan to protect the Sapodilla Hill site and preserve the stones and inscriptions, the National Museum and the DECR encourages anyone who may have removed inscriptions in the past to return them so that we may include them in the moulding, casting, and recording process.
Please contact Pat Saxton, director of development at the National Museum, at 946-2160 to arrange the transfer. No questions will be asked and donors may remain anonymous, if they so desire. Similarly, if anyone knows of other places in the Islands where ancient rock inscriptions exist, please contact the Museum so that we can add them to our database of TCI sites of historical importance.

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Edward Grice
Aug 14, 2011 19:13

Very interesting!
Have you found any “Frith” inscriptions?
I am trying to find anything I can on my families history there on the islands.
Ed Grice

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