Morning in the Garden of Good and Evil

Investigating Grand Turk’s Over Island Graveyard.

Story & Photos By Matthew A. Williamson, Ph.D.

My apologies to the author John Berendt, who penned the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, for only slightly changing his title for this article. I think it’s appropriate though, given the work that I do and where I live. You see, I am a bioarchaeologist and I teach at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia, which is 50 miles northwest of Savannah—the city that provides the setting for Mr. Berendt’s book. As a frequent visitor to Savannah, I am well familiar with her attachment to the past and reverence for cemeteries (or “the garden” as Minerva calls it in the book).

A bioarchaeologist is someone who specializes in the study of prehistoric or historic period human skeletal remains for the purpose of learning things about their health and physical activity when they were living. This is possible because bone is made of living tissue. That comes as a surprise to many folks because we tend to think of bone as “dead” since it is mineralized. In fact, there are cells living within the rigid mineral and they can react and adapt to mechanical, disease and nutritional stress.

Anatomist Julius Wolff.

In 1890, an anatomist named Julius Wolff discovered that bones can reinforce themselves in areas where they are subjected to stress. This principle has become known as “Wolff’s Law.” For example, when muscles pull on bones to create movement, they stimulate bone cells to lay down more mineral in order to strengthen the bone where the muscle attaches. This is why someone who is at risk for osteoporosis is advised to participate in weight-resistance exercise. Bigger muscles mean a stronger pull on the bone which results in thicker bones. At one 19th century cemetery where I was working, I uncovered the remains of two brothers, one with a more robust skeleton than the other. By applying what we know about how larger muscles mean larger muscle attachment sites, I concluded that one brother had a more physically demanding lifestyle than the other. This was justified when I found out later that the brother with the larger muscles had been a farmer.
As you can imagine, I’ve spent a lot of time working in cemeteries in places like London, the midwest United States and all over Georgia, but bones aren’t the only things in a cemetery that can tell us something about the lives of its occupants. Grave markers, inscriptions and decorations offer insight on how the person wanted to be remembered or how their family wanted them remembered. Moreover, materials used for the grave marker can be a symbol of economic status and the location of the grave is often an indication of social status. In many churches around the world, the burial sites closest to the altar were reserved only for the most influential or the most holy.
I first became interested in the Over Island Graveyard located in the center of the town salina on Grand Turk after I had heard about it from Dr. Donald Keith. My wife and I visited the Turks & Caicos Islands for the first time in 2014 and during that visit we stopped at the museum on Providenciales. After a lovely tour given by the most friendly and knowledgeable manager, Candianne Williams, I was inspired to think about how I could get involved with the museum. Once I returned home, I started to educate myself about the prehistory and history of the TCI. I found several interesting books and monographs and discovered that the TCI has been the subject of archaeological and historical inquiry for many years by some excellent scholars. I then realized that something I had begun at the Georgia Southern University museum might also be of use to the TCI museum. It’s a monograph series that’s available free through our website.
In archaeology, it’s common to get involved in projects that may not create enough data or be unique enough to warrant publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Yet, the project or data may still have some significance to other archaeologists or scientists who are interested in the region or time period. I decided to present the idea to Dr. Keith that we could publish monographs that cover archaeology, history, natural history and culture of the Turks & Caicos Islands that anyone can access for free though the museum’s website. He accepted my offer with enthusiasm and so “The Occasional Papers of the Turks & Caicos Museum” began.

Grand Turk’s Over Island Graveyard in the center of Town Salina.

As we discussed possible manuscripts for publication, he sent me what field notes, maps and photographs he had compiled of the “over-island graveyard.” Of course, this piqued my interest. In particular, I wanted to examine one tomb that was missing a large section of the cover making it possible to see down into the grave shaft. From the photograph, I wasn’t able to see any human remains or artifacts. However, it was clear that if there is ever any interest in identifying who is buried there, then whatever remains are in that grave must be recovered and protected as soon as possible. Continued exposure to the elements will only accelerate the bone decay which will render any attempt at extracting DNA impossible.
Like the exposed tomb, it was evident that the entire graveyard has been abandoned. Many gravestones are missing and a couple of walls surrounding plots have collapsed. Inscriptions on the existing gravestones have completely eroded from the soft limestone over time and many headstones are missing. It’s impossible to determine who’s buried there if you’re going to use headstone inscriptions. There is a small ridge running through the graveyard that is eroding and has probably caused the destruction of at least two burial sites. In one area, the sand has disappeared to the point where there is a large hole within which you can see the bottom of a gravestone.
A small herd of donkeys has taken up residence in and around the graveyard and they’ve created several trails between various areas. They are contributing to the graveyard’s decay as they trample fallen gravestones and structures. Lying on the ground along one of the donkey trails I found a small stone fragment that had a “W” carved into it and what is also probably an “F”. It wasn’t located anywhere near an obvious grave and there wasn’t enough remaining to determine for sure if it is part of a headstone.
I decided that I wanted to help preserve the graveyard and so I put together a plan that builds on Dr. Keith’s work. (You can read about what he found in the Spring 2013 Times of the Islands Astrolabe entitled “The Island Within the Island.”) Currently, there is no fence surrounding the graveyard so one goal is to determine its boundaries. This requires removal of vegetation that has grown up and obscured most of the area. That will permit creating a map of each and every grave marker, tomb, wall and limestone block.
Once the map is completed, then a search for unmarked graves can begin possibly through the use of ground penetrating radar. The “GPR” device is dragged along on a small sled as it transmits sound waves into the ground. As the waves are reflected back, a graphical readout of the soil density is created. Because grave shafts have been filled in with soil that is less dense than the surrounding, undisturbed soil it creates a distinct feedback signal that can be detected by the radar. There are caveats though—sometimes the feature turns out to be an anomaly or an old tree root. Moreover, it can’t produce a picture of a skeleton lying in the ground. Still, GPR devices can significantly reduce the time spent searching for graves even if occasionally the “hit” in the readout turns out to be nothing.
After a complete map is created, decisions will need to be made regarding whether or not to construct a permanent fence, place signage including a historical marker explaining the graveyard’s history, and determining who will take care of graveyard maintenance. As Dr. Keith reported in his article, there is already an ordinance issued in 1861 that empowers commissioners to use funds from the public treasury to pay for maintenance!
Another major issue to be resolved is whether or not the community supports the identification of who is buried in each grave. Unless a map of the cemetery can be found that shows each grave labeled with the occupant’s name, the only way to establish positive identification will be though DNA comparison. This would be a major undertaking because it would require excavation and reburial of each grave and many graves would be destroyed in the process.
We do have a general idea of who is probably buried there. Former Museum Director Pat Saxton found death records from 1825 to 1835 that list at least 95 individuals buried “at the island” or “on the island” referring to the Over Island Graveyard. According to those records, adults, children, whites, blacks, slaves and freedmen are all buried there, with recognizable surnames like Lightbourne, Misick and Stubbs.
Also among those buried is Reverend John Turtle, the second Methodist minister to be assigned to Grand Turk. (According to church records, Roger Moore was the first assigned to “Turks Island.”) Reverend Turtle was born in Ipswich, England on June 9, 1793. A conversation he had when he was 18 caused him to realize how he had neglected prayer in his life and motivated him “ . . . to break off my sins, desert my ungodly companions, and devote myself to his service.” After being ordained sometime during the following six years, he was appointed to the Bahamas by the Methodist Conference of 1817. He felt a strong call to serve as a missionary and so was quite excited about this new appointment as he left England on April 16, 1817. After 28 days at sea, he arrived in Nassau on May 14, 1818. Reverend Turtle then set about his duties of evangelization travelling the Eleuthera circuit on horseback, boat and occasionally walking up to 20 or more miles. According to one account, he developed a painful swelling in his legs causing him to be confined to his home. In 1819, after getting married, he visited Grand Turk for the first time. He continued to struggle with his health to the point where he could not fulfill an appointment to Jamaica and so he returned to the Bahamas.Reverend Turtle continued to preach in the Bahamas until his last appointment on Grand Turk, where he died presumably from consumption on August 16, 1825 at the age of 32.
Dr. Michael Pateman was chosen as the new museum director around the time I was developing my plan to map the graveyard and, fortunately, he expressed his full support and offered his assistance moving forward. After an impromptu visit to Grand Turk in June to get an idea of how I would begin and with permission from the Department of Environmental and Cultural Resources (DECR), I gathered my gear and headed out for Grand Turk again in July 2018.
I know that most archaeological fieldwork in the Islands is carried out in the fall, but I have a significant teaching load that forces me to conduct all of my work in the summer. However, I do live in Georgia so while I can’t say the heat doesn’t affect me at all, I am somewhat used to dealing with it. I decided I would focus my mapping efforts in the morning before the heat really cranked up. Using Dr. Keith’s map, I chose a burial feature consisting of one elevated tomb surrounded by a low wall. It was easy to spot since it was one of the few that was not completely overgrown.
First, I had to establish a datum (which is a permanent reference point that’s used for creating a grid and for measuring) by hammering a metal rod about a foot into the ground nearby. It was now time to begin removal of the overgrowth. I was equipped with pruning shears, a hand saw and branch clippers, but the vegetation was dense and the human-eating, devilishly thorned acacia bushes were not going to be dismissed without a fight! Fortunately, I was assisted by Vanessa Pateman, a graduate student in museum studies from the University of Western Illinois. Her hard work and enthusiasm was very much appreciated. I also want to thank Dr. Pateman for his help clearing the brush during one especially hot day.
We spent the entire first day just clearing off the tomb and wall. The next day, we were able to set up a square using spikes at the corners and string to connect them. Vanessa and I took turns measuring the position of limestone blocks and the dimensions of the wall and tomb. Archaeologists use a grid to create a record of where artifacts are found and to permit reconstruction of the site in the report. The typical grid square size is one meter by one meter but it can be adjusted to fit the needs of the project. In our situation, a six by six meter square was the minimum size needed to enclose the wall around the plot.

Stone fragment found along one of the donkey trails.

A total of five days in the “garden” was all I could spend on this trip, during which time Vanessa and I were able to map two grid squares. Dr. Keith estimated that the area of the graveyard is 2,000 square meters, so you can see that this project won’t be completed any time soon, but that’s typical in archaeology. I can’t say we made any discoveries that changed our understanding of the graveyard but there was one unexpected thing. I noticed a thin, white material on the outside of a tomb and on the sides of a few plot walls. It looks like it could be white stucco but I couldn’t be sure. If it was, it represents an additional cost above what was necessary to build a plain limestone box and would have gleamed a brilliant white in the TCI sun. On my last day, I walked the entire grounds and examined the open tomb I mentioned earlier. I couldn’t see any remains but it was obvious that it’s suffering from decay like the others. Now that I’m back at the university, my time is spent planning a return to the graveyard in July to continue adding to the map and doing whatever archival work I can to help us tell the story of the people buried there.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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