Carved Histories II

A duho biography.

By Joanna Ostapkowicz, Fiona Brock, Alex Wiedenhoeft and Mike Richards.

In December 2007, Fiona Brock and I visited the Turks & Caicos National Museum (TCNM) to study the Lucayan duho—or ceremonial seat—in its collections. This visit had long been a goal of mine: I first studied the duho (at a distance, in the UK) in the late 1990s through archival images and early documents. But it wasn’t until 2003, when it was safely returned to the Islands after being stolen from the Victoria Library in the 1970s, that plans developed to see it in person, and study it in detail. Thanks to a grant from the Getty Foundation for a project that aimed to better understand pre-Hispanic Caribbean wood sculptures, the TCNM duho study became a reality—and so began a collaboration that spanned four different countries, involving colleagues in TCI, the United Kingdom, USA and Germany.

Turks & Caicos National Museum high-backed duho

Our visit was the beginning of a journey—a pilgrimage of sorts—to the duho, the Museum, and the Islands that produced this, and other, sculptures. Some nine duhos have been recovered from the Turks & Caicos Islands, preserved for centuries in caves that were excavated during the 19th century guano mining boom—all had been dispersed to private collections, some later making their way into the holdings of international museums. But this was the only Turks & Caicos duho to remain in the Islands, and so this visit offered a chance to better understand both the artefact (through analyses including radiocarbon dating and wood identification), as well as the environment that produced it (the latter through a study focusing on native trees—see article in Green Pages). While some of the recent, dramatic, history of the duho was explored in an earlier publication (Astrolabe, Fall 2008), this article provides an overview of the results that have since been obtained, exploring how this new information fills in some of the gaps in our understanding of this remarkable survivor.

Duhos were often carved in the form of a four-legged creature (human, animal or a combination of both), and were the pride of Taíno and Lucayan caciques (or chiefs). They are known to us from some 150 examples that have survived in the Greater Antilles, Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands (over 80 of these carved of wood), as well as 16th-century descriptions, where they are documented as finely carved in dark woods, their eyes inlayed with shell, gold or guanin (a gold-copper alloy). They were, physically and metaphorically, the foundation for political interactions between caciques, and between them and the Spanish—such as when Columbus was invited to sit in a duho when he visited a Hispaniolan (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) cacique for discussions in 1492.

The TCNM duho is a substantial example of this Caribbean artform, featuring a long back that was, in Columbus’s own words, “for convenience, to lean against.” The owner would sit straddling the chair, the duho’s head positioned between their legs—a suggestive, and no doubt significant, posture. The head was inlaid with resins, to secure either shell or guanin, emphasising the facial features of the cemi (spirit)—the source, and embodiment, of the sitter’s power. The entire form down to the inlays was a reflection of the owner’s abilities to amass not only materials necessary for its creation, but also secure the work of a skilled artist—all of which reflected favourably on their status. These materials now contribute to expanding our understanding of the piece, and its source. Although the TCI duhos may have originally been inspired by duhos made in the Greater Antilles, from where initial settlers migrated post-AD 700, they developed in unique ways on these Islands—and are the work of local hands, rather than imports.

The wood
Much can be learned from the wood used to carve the duho, from the species chosen and where it grew, to the age of the tree when it was felled and carved. This information can then inform indirectly on traditional aspects that are now lost to us—such as the possible reasons behind selecting a specific species (carving qualities, symbolic significance, etc.). Choice of material had direct impact not only on the quality and final appearance of Lucayan sculptures, but also on the labour involved in creating them. An experienced wood carver had an intimate knowledge of the woods available—of their individual qualities and limitations—and likely chose each with particular care, especially when carving important ceremonial artefacts. Each had different demands—shell and stone tools (some of the latter had to be imported to TCI, including chert, basalt and jadeite) required constant upkeep, especially when working such materials as lignum vitae (Guaiacum sp.), one of the world’s hardest woods. The majority of the carvings in the wider study were carved of lignum vitae. Given the clear labour investment of such a choice, it’s unlikely that a decision to use this material was made lightly.

Wood anatomy—the microscopic structure of the cells from which the wood is made—is characteristic for each species: Alex Wiedenhoeft, of the USDA Forest Service Division, used these diagnostic features to identify Cordia sp., as the wood selected to carve the TCNM duho. There are over 200 species of Cordia in tropical and warm temperate regions, and although it is not possible to determine which particular species of Cordia was used to carve the duho solely from wood anatomy, we may be able to suggest possibilities that are native to the Turks & Caicos Islands: Cordia bahamensis (Bahama manjack or Cocobey), C. brittoni, C. globosa, C. lucayana and C. sebestena (Scarlet cordia). Most of these are small shrubs or trees, although C. sebestena can grow to 25 ft. in height. Given the size of the duho and the paucity of large-diameter Cordia other than C. alliodora (which does not occur in the Turks & Caicos Islands) and possibly C. sebestena, these species currently seem to be the most likely candidates for its manufacture. Of the two, C. alliodora is more consistently used for carving today—its straight-grained wood is easily worked and is used for a variety of purposes, from general construction to furniture carving. Like sebestena, it also has medicinal uses—including its leaves and flowers used to cure coughs, throat infections and chest colds.

Interestingly, many of the woods used for Taíno and Lucayan sculptures have been found to have a wide variety of medicinal uses—suggesting a deeper level of significance to the selected woods. It seems clear that Cordia had some significance to the Lucayans (whether practical or symbolic, or a combination of both): six sculptures made of this wood, identified in the wider project, are from the Bahamas and TCI. Cordia is thus tied with Guaiacum as the material of choice for this region. Guaiacum was regularly used for carving large-scale sculptures in the neighbouring Greater Antilles, yet outside the Bahamas and TCI, Cordia has not been encountered—and this gives further support to the idea that they were locally made rather than imported. This suggests a local significance to the material that current research is only beginning to understand.

Two species of Cordia from Middle Caicos

“. . . made of black wood, brilliantly polished”?
The majority of surviving duhos from other islands (Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba) feature a glossy patina, in a rich variety of colours, from amber to deep brown-black. Early descriptions of such stools often note their dark, shiny appearance: the 16th century Spanish historian Martyr D’Anghera noted that these “treasures” were “ . . . made of black wood, brilliantly polished . . . [possibly of] ebony.” Antonio de Herrera, writing slightly later in the 16th century, notes that they were “ . . . very neat, polished, and bright, as if they had been made of Jet.” According to one historic account, the lustrous finish was achieved during the last manufacture stages, when an artist would heat river pebbles and rub these onto the carving’s surface—in resin-rich woods like lignum vitae, this encouraged the resins to rise to the surface, coating the wood with a natural finish.

In contrast, the TCNM duho has an almost bleached, grey/white surface. Perhaps it was exposed to the elements sometime after its discovery (as it must have been in a protected location before this, to have survived at all). But it is interesting to note that most of the surviving duhos from TCI appear beached, which may be a result of the time they spent in limestone caves. The complex biochemical conditions in a cave environment can dramatically alter the surface appearance of wooden carvings, while also serving to preserve them. Could these conditions have contributed to the deterioration of an original, finely finished surface of the TCNM duho, and other TCI duhos? Intriguingly, the carving features dark patches on its nose and chin, as well as other areas of its body that might be all that remains of its original finish. Whether this might be some kind of stain that was applied to the carving, as hinted at by a number of other pieces, or the natural, polished appearance of the wood, is as yet uncertain.

The wood itself can also provide us with clues as to its origins. When it is growing, the tree acquires a geochemical “signature” from the ground water it takes up during the course of its life, which is in turn based on the local geology. One of the elements taken up is strontium, and its isotopes can be used as a geological “fingerprint,” since different types of age of rock will have very different amounts of one isotope of strontium, Sr87, relative to another, Sr86. This technique has seen much use on prehistoric human remains over the last decade, to identify migrants to an area, but its use to trace wooden objects is a new area of study that is being piloted as part of this project by Mike Richards.

To better interpret the strontium isotope results from the duhos and other carvings in the study, twig samples were collected from 54 trees (including lignum vitae and mahogany, Swietenia sp.) from Providenciales, North, Middle and East Caicos. As the geology of all the islands is limestone, we would expect to see very similar values for the two species on all four islands. This was indeed the case, with the 54 samples giving an average Sr87/Sr86 value of 0.709168 ± 0.000012. As expected, the strontium result from the TCNM duho provided an essentially identical value of 0.709170. This, together with the stylistic features (Astrolabe, Fall 2008), would strongly suggest that the wood used to carve the duho came from the limestone islands of TCI, though equally, the same strontium value is also found on the Bahamian islands.

Close-up of duho shows original patina

Radiocarbon dating
One of the main motivations for the larger project was to obtain the first series of radiocarbon dates for Taíno/Lucayan wooden carvings, in order to better understand their histories, and so to place them into the wider archaeological/ethnographic picture. Did the TCNM carving fall early in the occupation of the Turks & Caicos Islands (post-AD 700) or was it one of the very last carvings to be made in the early 1500s, prior to their depopulation due to slave raids? Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) was not a suitable technique with this piece, as tropical hardwoods typically lack distinct growth rings, and further, the sample preparation for tree-ring techniques would be highly damaging to the duho; radiocarbon dating remains the best method currently available. But this required a careful assessment of the sampling area: taking a sample from a part of the carving that included the pith (the centre of the tree) would provide a date of the sapling’s first years of growth rather than when the tree was felled for carving. In a slow-growing species, the discrepancy could easily be several centuries. To account for this, the duho was oriented relative to its position within the trunk used to carve it, and the radiocarbon sample taken from the area farthest from the pith, so as to provide the best estimate for the tree’s felling date. It’s always possible that the tree had lain felled for some time before carving, or had served another use prior to the duho being carved, but judging by the evidence from other pieces in the study—which suggest that felling and carving were done in one focused activity for a specific purpose—it is highly likely that the duho was carved very soon after felling.

Of course, the decision of where to sample also had to take into account the carving’s importance as an object of cultural patrimony, and its aesthetic qualities. We therefore aimed for minimum impact, ideally working within already present cracks to maintain the carving’s visual integrity as far as possible. Fiona targeted a long splinter of wood along a natural crack on the duho’s left side, as it fulfilled all location criteria (wood furthest away from the pith) while at the same time providing an appearance that mimicked natural loss to the area, rather than a drill hole or other invasive cut. The sample was already loose, and so easily removed with a scalpel, suggesting that it would have dislodged of its own accord in due course. This was sufficient for both radiocarbon dating, undertaken at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, and the strontium isotope analysis, run at the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig.

The TCNM duho gave a radiocarbon age of 395 + 25 BP. Radiocarbon ages need to be calibrated, giving a range of calendar years (rather than a single specific date), defined by probability. The highest probability (close to 80%) for the carving of the TCNM duho falls between AD 1440 and 1522. There is a small chance (about 16%) that it was carved between AD 1578 and 1620, but given the near-total dissolution of traditional Lucayan culture by the mid-16th century at the latest, this seems unlikely. Duhos required an intact social and political structure for their meaning and function, and the impact of European invasion, with its slave raids and cultural assimilation programs (e.g., encomienda – forced indigenous labour in exchange for religious indoctrination), brought many traditional practices to an end.

The wider context: the duhos of TCI
With this as background, how does the duho fit into the wider picture of Turks & Caicos archaeology? And how does it compare to the dating of other duhos from the islands? The date of AD 1440–1522 makes it the youngest known duho in TCI, with the four others in the study ranging between ca. AD 1050 and 1455. Duhos, as valuable and prestigious objects, were likely long-“lived” carvings, investments used for decades by their owners, and possibly passed on to the next generation as inherited wealth. With some wood carvings, this reuse has been shown to span centuries. The longest period of use for the TCNM duho would not have exceeded ca. 80 years, or some 2–3 generations. However, it may not have been used for long, at least not if it was carved after 1492: the duho’s later range spans well into the contact period, a time of significant upheaval to Taíno and Lucayan traditional culture.

In 1509, less than 20 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, the Spanish king issued orders that the dwindling Taíno labour force on Hispaniola be augmented with people from neighbouring islands: by 1511, early accounts indicate that the Bahamas/TCI Islands were almost completely depopulated due to Spanish slave raids and introduced diseases. Demand for Lucayan slaves rose dramatically when their diving talents were discovered—many were bought at great price and sent to dive for pearls in the Spanish pearl fisheries of Cubagua, off the coast of Venezuela. With such a demand, the slave raids were quite likely to be thorough. The last “evacuation” of Lucayans from the Bahamas and TCI in the early 16th century marked an end—at least in the historical records—of their life on the Islands. It is possible that pockets of survivors still remained, in areas the Spanish could not access or were not interested in once focus shifted to exploiting the mainland, but their life was unlikely to be the same again.

Prior to European contact, many of the Caicos Islands had large, permanent settlements by AD 1400; Grand Turk may be an exception, as William Keegan suggests that the island may have been abandoned after AD 1285. Our current knowledge of the archaeology of the region, based on the work of Keegan, Betsy Carlson, Shaun Sullivan and Peter Sinelli, suggests that the history of indigenous exploration of TCI starts, conservatively, at about AD 700, when people from Hispaniola established seasonal camps to exploit the Islands’ rich marine resources. It wasn’t until about AD 1000–1100 that permanent villages were established and local styles emerged, such as Palmetto ware—a shell-tempered pottery unique to the Bahamas and TCI. Despite local adaptations, these new TCI communities still maintained close links to Hispaniola, as seen in the continued presence of imported pottery and other non-local materials, especially the chert and basalt stones suitable for making tools that the Islands lacked entirely. The important Middle Caicos site of MC-6 (dating after AD 1290) has plazas, ball courts and astronomical alignments—elaborate features so well-known from Taíno settlements to the south. Other cultural practices, such as the use of duhos, arrived with the initial colonisers, so that by AD 1050, a unique, local style was beginning to emerge, which featured impressive size, a long back ending in a straight cut (for “high-backs”) and more natural facial features than their Hispaniolan counterparts.

A Grand Turk duho?
There is a final twist in the story. Since 1893, the duho has been closely associated with Grand Turk—it was displayed there shortly after the Victoria Library opened, and remained there until the late 1970s, when it was stolen, only to be repatriated in 2003. But is Grand Turk the original “source” of the duho? Several things converge to suggest it is not. If the island was indeed abandoned after AD 1285, then it would be difficult to explain the presence of a duho dating post-1440—especially as the expected infrastructure (large permanent village with an affluent leader/cacique) is not in evidence at this time. Further, in the late 1970s, Shaun Sullivan, then working on his PhD on the archaeology of the Turks & Caicos, viewed and photographed the duho before it was stolen from the library, along with a smaller, damaged duho that was also on display there, and remembers seeing a label that attributed both pieces to the “Caicos” Islands. This is echoed by C. Bernard Lewis, Director of the Institute of Jamaica in the mid-1950s, who clearly gave a Caicos provenance for the two duhos in his comments to Julian Granberry, then doing his MA on Bahamian archaeology. Guano mining was a thriving business on East and Middle Caicos in the late 1800s, when the duhos were probably found. For example, most of what is known about the archaeology of now uninhabited and inaccessible East Caicos dates back to this period, when many caves were explored, especially those in the vicinity of the main settlement of Jacksonville: it is in this area that a duho was found in 1885, although its current whereabouts are unknown. A further two duhos were found on Middle Caicos ca. 1880, near Conch Bar, but disappeared soon after, likely into private hands—an interesting co-incidence . . .

In comparison to the huge caves on the Caicos Islands—some of the largest caves in the region—Grand Turk features relatively exposed rock shelters that were unlikely to provide sufficient protection for the preservation of so large an organic artefact. Rather, Grand Turk was the residence of many entrepreneurs, including those in the business of guano mining. The vagaries of early documentation may have added to the confusion, where a collector’s residence is mistaken for the provenance of his collections: the donor of the duhos to the Victoria Library may well have been a Grand Turk resident. Under the circumstances, it is more likely that the duho came from the Caicos group of islands, rather than Grand Turk. Unfortunately, the distribution of Cordia sp. cannot define this further—as its natural distribution extends throughout the Islands—nor do the strontium isotope results distinguish between islands that share a very similar geology. The features are also not sufficiently diagnostic—or at least our understanding of them is inadequate as yet— to distinguish regional variation. Perhaps future research —and some luck—will clarify these aspects in more detail.

But despite these limitations, we have moved some ways forward in understanding the TCNM duho—from its creation to its place in time. These artefacts—expressions of artistic creativity and labour and the pinnacle of chiefly pomp and ceremony—are iconic artefacts from the Turks & Caicos’ Lucayan past. This study has provided a deeper look, and its insights form the basis for further work: we still have a long way to travel, but the process is without doubt a rewarding and absorbing one.

Acknowledgements: our thanks to the Getty Foundation and TCNM for enabling this study, and Don Keith and Pat Saxton for the invitation to contribute this update to the Astrolabe.

Dr. Joanna Ostapkowicz, Curator of Americas Collections at World Museum, National Museums Liverpool, UK.
Dr. Fiona Brock, Chemist at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Oxford University, UK.
Dr. Alex Wiedenhoeft, Research Botanist at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory, Center for Wood Anatomy Research, USA.
Prof. Mike Richards, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig.

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