Green Pages

Hidden Stories

Trees and the charting of Lucayan histories.
By Joanna Ostapkowicz, B. Naqqi Mango, Mike Richards and Alex Wiedenhoeft

Wood is a remarkable medium, revealing in its carved surface not only the artists’ intention, but more subtly, the tree’s unique history. Its coloring, grain and growth rings mark its age and how the tree grew. Other aspects, invisible to the naked eye, provide a deeper level of information: the size, shape and orientation of the cells can tell us what species of tree was selected for carving. At an elemental scale, the very atomic structure of wood can provide information—carbon, nitrogen and strontium chart its environmental history—for example, where it grew. All these aspects can tell us much about its past, ultimately revealing the actions of the people who selected the tree, felled and carved it into an object—such as the duho in the Turks & Caicos National Museum. Our study of this carving used many different techniques to understand its use, origin and age—and it was the wood that ultimately gave us many of the answers.

Collectors walk along a railroad track once used to transport guano in East Caicos.

For example, radiocarbon dating measures the quantity of carbon 14—an isotope that deteriorates at a known rate—remaining in an organic material, such as wood. Submitting a small, carefully selected sample from the duho for radiocarbon dating gave a result of AD 1440–1522 (close to 80% probability) for its carving, well within the late phase of Lucayan occupation on TCI. Another useful element is strontium, which essentially provides a geological record of where the selected tree was growing. This can then inform us whether the wood was carved on the island where it grew, or if it—or the finished carving—was traded to other areas. A sculpture’s original provenance—where it was made vs. where it ended up—is a key to better understanding such things as local style and history of use. The strontium isotope study would allow us to bring the provenance of the duho, as well as other artefacts in the “Prehispanic Caribbean Sculptural Arts in Wood” project into sharper focus, ultimately tying these pieces into the chronologies of specific islands.

The link between living trees and 10th to 16th century sculptures
Not too long ago, some researchers suggested that the duhos found in the Bahamas and TCI were imports from the Taíno heartland to the south, as these elaborate ceremonial carvings were considered beyond the abilities of local craftspeople to produce. Yet the duhos found on the islands share many features, in contrast to those seen in the south, rather suggestive of a uniquely Lucayan carving style. Were these features indicative of local carving traditions and if so, how could they help to refine our understanding of Lucayan style?
To explore these issues further, we needed to determine the source of the wood used to carve the sculptures. The project’s first year was spent visiting museum collections in a detailed study of the carvings they held (see Astrolabe Fall 2008 and this issue), taking small samples for wood identification and biochemical (stable isotope) analysis. The wood ID samples were submitted to Alex Wiedenhoeft, wood anatomist at the USDA Forest Service, who determined the wood used based on each sample’s diagnostic cell structure. Of the four woods identified from the 18 Bahamian and TCI carvings studied, lignum vitae, Guaiacum sp., was the most frequent wood, followed by Cordia sp. This information provided us with a list of species to focus on when we returned to the islands for our fieldwork, which involved collecting material (twigs) from living trees to establish a strontium isotope baseline. Results on the wood from the Lucayan carvings could then be compared against the results from trees of known location, which would help to firm up provenance.

The whys and wherefores of a tree provenance study
During the course of its life, a tree takes up nutrients from the ground water, incidentally including elements such as strontium—which, in turn, is based on the local geology, unique to the area where the tree grew. This geological “signature” is retained within the wood after the tree has been felled—essentially remaining intact as long as the wood survives. Strontium can be measured from small wood samples using a Plasma Ionisation Multicollector Mass Spectrometer (PIMMS). The technique can distinguish between limestone islands such as TCI and ancient volcanic islands, such as Haiti/Dominican Republic. Other elements such as carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, also present in the wood, widen this environmental picture.

Large example of Guaiacum sanctum in Sandy Point, North Caicos

A comparative database of materials from known locations is the key to such a study: without this baseline, there is no way of knowing what the values from the artefacts mean, or how they fit into the wider context. We needed samples from living hardwoods—and for consistency, wanted to base this on the same species as those identified in the artefact study. We focused on lignum vitae, cordia and mahogany, Swietenia mahagoni, and our field collecting worked to ensure that the location of the relevant tree groves closely paralleled the recorded provenance of the artefacts in the study, and ideally were in close proximity to known archaeological sites, with Providenciales, North, Middle and East Caicos as the focal areas.
Given that the majority of artefacts were identified as lignum vitae, collecting from this tree had be handled with particular care: lignum vitae is an endangered species, and is listed in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), so all permits had to be in place well in advance for the export of samples from the Islands. It also helped that our sampling technique was minimal—we required no more than a small twig (about 100mg), so we were not damaging the tree any more than that encountered through natural loss. Ideally, this twig would also contain leaves and/or flowers, so that material beyond the small amount of wood needed for the stable isotope analysis could be preserved on a herbarium sheet, as a botanical record of the tree.
As it happened, this was helped by an agreement for a permanent record of any and all botanical sampling on the Islands, already in place between TCI’s National Trust, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London and Fairchild Botanic Garden Herbarium, Florida, and so our project fitted neatly into this established scheme, with each institution acquiring duplicate herbarium material collected during the study. National Museums Liverpool, as the institution hosting the Getty-funded project, received the herbarium samples directly associated with the stable isotope samples, and these were mounted as a permanent record by staff at the World Museum’s Botany Department. With permissions for sampling in place from the TCI Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, and a collaborative agreement with the National Trust—which included the invaluable guidance of B. Naqqi Manco—the scene was set for some fieldwork.

Trees, land crabs and mosquitoes: fieldwork in TCI
Although we had been in touch via e-mail months in advance, Naqqi and I first met on the ferry dock in Provo on an early mid-July morning in 2009. After a strong cappuccino to talk over logistics, we immediately set out in our rickety rental car into the “wilds” of Provo. Naqqi is a walking encyclopaedia of botanical knowledge, with an ability to identify trees at a glance, and an environmental memory that can take him directly and unfailingly to the location of a specific tree he saw in passing years ago. This ability never ceased to amaze me during the week we worked together.
The relative ease of travelling between Provo, North, Middle and East Caicos, together with Naqqi’s local knowledge (which speeded things up enormously), meant that a large area could be covered. We worked the length and breadth of Providenciales on our first day, and by evening we were in North Caicos, with a new base (Pelican Beach Hotel—with the added bonus of Susan Gardiner’s wonderful cooking), another rental car, and an itinerary that spanned the three large Caicos islands over the following five days. Our sampling highlights included 7m lignum vitae trees on North Caicos and rare Guaiacum officinale on East Caicos. Each island had its own natural charms—from the land crabs migrating across the roads at dusk on Middle Caicos (which slowed down our progress quite literarily to a crab’s pace), to the gargantuan mosquitoes in North, which would easily give those in Alaska a run for their money. Transport between the islands was also memorable—from the hurricane-damaged road linking North and Middle to a thankfully uneventful boat ride to East Caicos (despite the sharks circling the boat after the engine stalled on our return journey).
During these island tours, samples from our target species were collected at selected distances to check possible differences in the isotope values in different areas, for example, between coastal and inland groves. Once an individual tree had been identified, herbarium samples were harvested for vetting as per standard botany procedures. GPS coordinates and detailed information on tree size and environment were documented, and each sampled tree was photographed to provide a complete record. In total, 54 samples were collected from the Turks & Caicos Islands—including 24 Guaiacum sanctum and three rare Guaiacum officinale.

A note on Lignum Vitae, the “holy” wood
Lignum vitae is an extraordinary tree—one of the hardest, heaviest and most durable woods known. Its high resin content brings a natural lustre to its distinctive, interlocked grain when worked, making it highly resistant to decay—a combination of features that produce a wood of exceptional quality. But it was not simply the wood’s carving qualities that created such demand in Europe after it was first imported in 1508: its impact at this time was more a reflection of a dramatic period of social history. Its common name—lignum vitae, literarily “wood of life”— is linked with its supposed curative properties, which were first learned from the Taíno. The German scholar Ulrich von Hutton, writing in 1519, noted that lignum vitae was the “the Indian Cure” for syphilis, “after the people of that lande [Hispaniola] hadde taught . . . that medicine . . .”. The cure required the shavings of the wood be boiled to release the resins (which were directly administered to the sores) while the patient drank the liquid concentrate over a period of 30 days, eating little and remaining in bed—and it was claimed that this had some degree of success. As syphilis spread, so too did the reputation of lignum vitae’s curative properties, and it could not be imported fast enough to keep up with demand.
From Robert S. Munger’s excellent study “Guaiacum, the Holy Wood from the New World” (1949), we learn that as prices soared, entrepreneurial merchants began to “fake” the wood, selling other woods filled with red clay to mimic the weight of lignum vitae, or buying back the used guaiac chips from their previous customers, to sell it on several times over. Those who could not afford the price of the wood flocked to churches where the “sacred” wood was hung, and praying in front of it, believed themselves cured. The Spanish monarchs, keen for the Crown’s profit in this unprecedented wood trade, ordered all ships returning from the Caribbean to import large quantities of the precious wood. This lignum vitae craze lasted for decades before mercury superseded it as the syphilis cure in the mid-16th century—but it remained an important trade wood over the following centuries, which lead to its decline on many Caribbean islands, and hence its place on the CITES list.
Although its popularity as a medicinal cure never again reached such demand, it continues to be used as a cure today. A chemical derivative of the resin, glyceryl guaiacolate, is used in the production of a number of expectorant and cough suppressant drugs, including many of the most popular over the counter brands. Guaiacum wood chips and resin are sold online for the treatment of rheumatic arthritis, chronic coughs, and gout. It has valuable anti-inflammatory qualities that make it useful in the treatment of many common diseases, and it also works as a laxative, diuretic, and to increase perspiration. In the Turks & Caicos Islands, the resin (locally called rosin) is collected for boiling in water to make a tea to treat muscle and back strains, particularly for men with lower back problems.
Lignum vitae’s usefulness is not restricted to medicine. Branches several inches in diameter are collected and honed down into heavy, smooth batons called “conch bruisers,” which are used to tenderise conch before cooking it. The same sections of wood can be used to make termite- and rot-resistant replacement handles for hand tools such as hammers. Smaller pieces of finished wood are sometimes used to make locally-produced jewellery or ornaments. The resin has been used in some parts of the Caribbean as a component in wood varnish. Finally the flowers produce nectar which bees convert into a high-quality honey.
Two lignum vitae species were sampled in our study —Guaiacum officinale (“true” lignum vitae) and Guaiacum sanctum (“sacred” lignum vitae), both of which are native to the Islands. These, among other hardwoods, were heavily harvested in TCI during the 18th century, when land was being cleared for cotton and sisal plantations. They now appear mostly in small, scattered groves and, due to over-logging, are isolated to fairly inaccessible regions—which were sometimes a challenge for our fieldwork. Both feature blue/purple flowers amid “ever-green” leaves and both have characteristic gnarled and twisted branches, with the bark of G. sanctum being light grey and roughly grooved, while the bark of G. officinale is very smooth and green, grey and brown calico. G. sanctum reaches an average height of 30 feet while G. officinale is more squat and gnarled, typically growing between 10–13 feet in height.

Isotope results: Lucayan sources
The Turks & Caicos are limestone islands. This was a great advantage in the study as limestone islands, depending on their age and formation, have very similar strontium isotope values. We were expecting (and hoping, as this is still a new method of provencing wood artefacts) that the trees should all have similar strontium isotope values, despite the exact location they were sampled from. This proved to be the case, with the 54 tree samples having an average Sr87/Sr86 value of 0.709168 ± 0.000012. The results from the study’s five Turks & Caicos artefacts ranged from 0.709140 to 0.709170, strongly suggesting that the wood used for the carvings had grown on limestone islands. Together with the stylistic features seen in the four duhos, including large size, a long, extending back with a straight cut (for “high-backs”), high, cylindrical legs and naturalistic facial carving—features unique to the northern archipelago of TCI and the Bahamas—this would suggest the work of local hands, rather than imports from Hispaniola. The Lucayans were carving some of the largest and most complex duhos to emerge from the entire Caribbean, taking the duho as an artefact to new levels of artistry.

Trees past and present
The people who first started exploring the Islands after AD 700 have much to teach us—from use of local resources both materially and medicinally to creating a cultural expression unique to the Islands. These resources —lignum vitae among them—have survived the over-exploitation of previous centuries, and continue to be of local value and use, continuing a history of practice that stretches back millennia. By using the environmental information derived from living trees, this study has served as a link between the present and the past—drawing attention to the natural resources of the Islands while helping to place TCI’s Lucayan artefacts into a clearer context, defining their style and offering insights into the use of local resources in the past. The results, and the work that continues to investigate Lucayan wood carving and craftsmanship, are beginning to build a better understanding of materials which seldom survive in the archaeological record and how they featured in the lives of the Lucayan people.

Dr. Joanna Ostapkowicz, Curator of Americas Collections at World Museum, National Museums Liverpool, UK.
B. Naqqi Manco, Caicos Pine Recovery Project Manager, Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources, TCI.
Prof. Mike Richards, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig.
Dr. Alex Wiedenhoeft, Research Botanist at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory, Center for Wood Anatomy Research, USA.

Thanks to: Wesley Clerveaux, Brian Riggs and Eric Salamanca, Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources, Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams, TCI National Trust, Susan and Clifford Gardiner, the late Godfrey Forbes, Melanie Visaya and all who made our study on the Islands enjoyable and rewarding, as well as Claire Sedgwick, Emma Martin, Donna Young and NML’s Botany department for all their assistance in Liverpool.

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