To the Rescue

Community teamwork investigates early island culture.

By Dr. Shaun D. Sullivan and Dr. Michael P. Pateman ~ Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum

In the fall of 2018, local volunteers and students came together in a community effort to record a key part of the culture of early Turks & Caicos Islanders. They came from nearby homes and schools to search out, sort and sift ancient artifacts and food remains from the South Bank archaeological site on the western shore of the Juba Sound estuary.
Evidence of prehistoric human occupation of the area around Juba Point was first reported by Theodoor De Booy in the early 1900s. He was exploring the Islands on behalf of the Heye Museum of the American Indian in New York when he found pre-Columbian ceramics and stone artifacts in caves above the sound behind Long Bay.
Exploring the area downhill from the caves in 1976, archaeologist Shaun Sullivan came upon Amerindian ceramics and shell food remains in a grassy area alongside the original channel for the Caicos Marina, and followed up with text excavation there in early 1977.

The circular impressions on this pot sherd are a decorative motif from the late ceramic period in northwestern Hispaniola.

The site was originally recorded as Providenciales–1, and has come to be renamed the South Bank site. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from a firepit encountered in 1977 provided a calibrated date of AD 1328 +/– 49 years. Imported ceramics encountered indicated contact with the Amerindians in the Greater Antilles. Locally made ceramics, Palmetto Ware, were common, classifying this as a local settled culture, i.e., a Lucayan village site. Bone remains analyzed at the Florida Museum of Natural History demonstrated exploitation of fish from the estuary and near shore environments.
More than 40 years later in the spring of 2018, Sullivan and Beluga catamaran captain Tim Ainley returned to the site and found it remarkably undisturbed, in spite of intervening development surrounding it. A local resident, Kathi Barrington, wandered by with her dog, and advised that the site was soon to be converted to housing and a marina. Concerned by the pending loss of cultural remains, the developers were contacted.
Coming to appreciate the value of the site, Windward Long Bay Development Ltd., via Ingo Reckhorn, generously agreed to fund the bulk of the cost excavations and analysis to capture key information about the ancient culture while there was still time. Additional funding and support came from the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, the Anthropological Research Council and Sail Beluga.
A rapid effort was made to inform the local community of the site’s value and recruit participants in the rescue archaeology effort. We teamed up with Michael Pateman and Candianne Williams of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and reached out to Ethlyn Gibbs of the Turks & Caicos National Trust; Ludmila Fulford of the TCI Department of Education; Nicole Caesar, Lormeka Williams and Eric Salamanca of the TCI Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, Agile LeVin of Visit TCI and Sylvia Wigglesworth of the BWI Collegiate.

Part of each day’s work by students and volunteers at the South Bank site included screening excavated soil to uncover artifacts.

In early October, with a community outreach response of a dozen local adult residents and several bright and energetic students from the Collegiate, we launched our effort to capture the information locked in the earth. We began each day gathered around our artifact-sorting tables in the shade of a high canopy to discuss the practical tasks ahead for that day, as well as the broader theories surrounding what we were doing. We discussed the prehistory of the Islands; Lucayan and Taino Indian cultures; ancient human migrations; anthropology; archaeology; and the roles of museums and of public participation in research to assist in creating a sense of cultural continuity with the past. There were a lot of questions, and the lively discussions that ensued helped give meaning to our findings during the excavations.
The youngsters who participated enlivened the enterprise considerably. They were enthusiastic and good-natured. They kibitzed and sang while they worked. We hosted field trips to the archaeological site for more than half a dozen local elementary and secondary schools, representatives of the press, local officials and Governor Freeman. The visiting students were curious and asked good questions. Some expressed interest in becoming archaeologists in the future. Community engagement was a strong part of our plan, and the interaction with schools and students was an important element of our networking activities.
We dug a score of test pits across the site to determine the distribution of the subsurface deposits, and used those results to chose two particularly rich areas, one north and one south, for controlled excavations. We cut down carefully, layer by layer, screening and mapping the deposits and artifacts we encountered, with the students and volunteers learning to classify and make note of the materials recovered. We recorded ceramics by number sherds and weight, distinguishing between locally made Palmetto Ware and imported ceramics from the Greater Antilles to the south; obtained charcoal for radiocarbon dating; preserved animal bones and identified the number and species of shell remains. We photographed all the artifacts.
In both the north and south excavation areas we quickly encountered distinctive concentrations of carbon-stained, burned and cracked limestone mixed with broken conch shells. We have come to recognize these as “earth ovens” which were open pit, broken stone and shell lined cooking areas, which are a form of Lucayan cultural deposit that is widely distributed in the Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas.
The northern excavation produced some intriguing soil layers (strata). Working downward, a few centimeters from the surface we encountered a thin layer of very pale soil, a mixture of sand and marl, which appeared to have been carried in from the local estuary and spread on the surface. It would have produced a smooth walking surface for the Lucayans.

Museum Director Dr. Michael Pateman worked to excavate and sample the unusual black earth deposit. It may have been man-made, the result of prehistoric “composting.”

That pale layer capped living debris (midden) that quickly transitioned to exceptionally black soil. It was so black it was literally off our soil color chart. The earth ovens are dark, but this was darker. Without claiming exact duplication, we note that in lowland South America at prehistoric sites there are commonly found man-made (anthropogenic) soils that are very dark; these man-made soils are termed “terra preta” or “Indian earth.” These terra preta soils are the result of intentional composting. We took samples of this black soil from South Bank for analysis. Michael Pateman focused the excavation effort in the northern sector on sampling and defining this black earth feature.
We found ceramic fragments scattered throughout the deposits. We always study ceramics because they are sturdy and endure. They have stylistic traits in their form and decoration that evolve through time and spread through space via trade and the sharing of styles, which are passed down and across from potter to potter.
One decorative motif on imported ceramics of note was wide punctation (circular impressions). This was found on ceramics excavated in 1977 and in our October 2018 dig. Similar decoration was noted on ceramics recovered by De Booy over a century earlier at the nearby Juba Point caves, and a nearly identical decoration was found on imported ceramics at a contemporaneous site on Middle Caicos, site MC-12. That decorative motif is known from the late ceramic period in northwestern Hispaniola. That zone may therefore have been included in the trade network of the Lucayans at the South Bank site.
Today we have methods for extracting information about diet from ceramics and shell remains. Microscopic silicon structures from plants (phytoliths) as well as starch grains, fat remains (lipids) and pollen remain adhered to some ceramic and shell specimens. We carefully preserved unwashed ceramics and shells from the South Bank site for such analysis, which is ongoing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) and at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FMNH). Among the shells being analyzed at FMNH are clam shells, Codakia orbicularis, that show edge chipping from when they were used for scraping, quite possibly for scraping the skins of tubers, such as manioc.
Locally made Palmetto Ware ceramics have crushed shell inclusions (tempering) in the clay that help bind it together. Coming from the volcanic origin islands to the south, Cuba and Hispaniola, imported ceramics we encounter contain igneous and metamorphic grit tempering. In order to analyze the minerals in the import tempering, and thereby help trace them back to their point of origin, we have cut very thin sections of those ceramics, allowing microscopic examination of the minerals. This is referred to as petrographic analysis, and is currently being undertaken at UNCW.
Comparable petrographic analysis of ceramics from the Greater Antilles is just starting to be conducted by other researchers, so for the moment we have a limited comparative base. However, that will change as more such work is done in the islands to the south. In the near future we will be better able to trace these imported ceramics back to their hearth zone, and thus have an expanded picture of the islanders’ trade networks.
Local Palmetto Ware often has basketry and mat impressions. We brought in an expert, Charlene Hutcheson, to help with analysis of these impressions, and by extension advance depiction of the basketry and weaving skills of the Lucayans.
Charcoal samples extracted from the midden were sent to Beta Analytics in Miami for radiocarbon dating. The three test results indicated a high probability that the occupation period of the village was between 1300 and 1440 AD, which is consistent with the radiocarbon date mentioned from the 1977 dig.
Why settle there? Why settle by the mouth of Juba Sound? The Sound is a rich natural environment, and the South Bank site is particularly well located to take advantage of local resources. The site sits in the lee of the high ironshore at the south end of Long Bay, where canoes could be landed in calm waters. It sits on deep sandy soil, upon which it would have been easy to build the pole and thatch structures of the Lucayans, and within which the Amerindians could plant their varied crops. A permanent surface fresh water source is located to the northeast, at the base of the hill on which are found the Juba Point caves. The estuary system of the Sound is rich in shellfish, and the narrow estuary mouth is a natural tidal funnel for fish and an ideal location for fish traps. Nearby offshore are banks that have abundant conch, and the patch reefs host many fish. The bone and shell remains recovered from the South Bank site indicate that all these resources and environmental zones were being exploited.
Analysis is ongoing, but here is where we are, and what we expect to learn. We are strengthening our understanding of how the Lucayans interacted with their environment and utilized resources within it; firm dating of the site between approximately 1300 and 1440 AD helps place the settlement in the context of regional cultural development and links to contemporaneous communities; decorative motifs and mineral content of imported ceramics are enabling refined modeling of trade ties and networks; and analysis of food residue on bone, shell and ceramics will expand our understanding of the Lucayan diet and of the plant and animal species that they used to fuel their economy.
The South Bank dig was productive, and could not have been successful without the contributions of local officials, students and volunteers. It was a true community effort.

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