Archaeology in T&T: Then and Now
Figure 1 Left: Excavations at St Joseph conducted by Irving Rouse c1950, Right Above: The Red House Excavations led by Basil A. Reid 2013, Right Center: Human Remains found at Banwari Trace Archaeological Site, Right Below: Underwater Excavations at Rockley Bay led by Kroum Batchvarov
Sources: Arie Boomert, Basil A. Reid, Institue of Nautical Archaeology
What is Archaeology?
“Archaeology is perhaps the most famous and yet least understood academic pursuit in existence”(Renfrew and Bahn 1996) Popular culture depicts the archaeologist as a daring explorer cutting through dense jungles or as the absent-minded professor digging in the high sands of some far-flung desert. These depictions, though often quite fictional, are not totally incorrect. Archaeology is indeed an adventure, but it is also an increasingly sophisticated academic discipline. This discipline may be defined as the scientific study of humanity’s past, primarily using material objects. Archaeologists study things created, used, or changed by humans including the stone tools of our distant ancestors, the monuments of complex extinct civilisations, shipwrecks found beneath the waves or even the objects we’ve sent into space. They also study humanity’s use and manipulation of plants, animals and landscapes in the natural world. In so doing, Archaeologists seek to understand human behaviour from the micro (e.g. Arrowhead production) to the macro (e.g. Caribbean Plantation Society)
Figure 2: The Diversity of Archaeological Research
Trinidad and Tobago may not have launched satellites into orbit. However, this twin-island state possesses both an abundance of terrestrial and marine archaeological resources with over 300 recorded sites and a long history of investigation (Arie. Boomert 2016). This article is a brief look at the pioneers, famous discoveries, and the modern study of archaeology in Trinidad and Tobago. Please leave all fedoras and whips in the lockers provided before proceeding!
Figure 3 Above Left: Archie Chauharjasingh, Peter Harris and Prof. Keith O. Laurence; Below Left: Arie Boomert and Irving Rouse; Right: John A. Bullbrook
Source: Arie Boomert, K.O Laurence
Archaeological research in Trinidad and Tobago began in earnest from the mid-nineteenth century with the geological survey of Trinidad in 1858 and the subsequent identification of ‘raised beaches’ or middens, in Laventille as prehistoric Amerindian sites by R.J. Lechmere Guppy in 1864 (Arie. Boomert 2000). The archaeologists of this early period focused on collecting and describing pre-Columbian artefacts found by chance encounters. Discoveries of ornate ceramics at Erin (south Trinidad) by H. Fowler and Governor Sir William Robinson in 1888 piqued local interest in antiquities. These discoveries also led to the establishment of The Royal Victoria Institute. Now known as the National Museum and Art Gallery, this facility still safeguards our most precious artefacts (Siegel, Righter, and ebrary 2011).
From the 1910s to the 1960s archaeologists working in Trinidad like John A. Bullbrook, John M. Goggin and Irving Rouse conducted extensive excavations in Cedros, Erin and Palo Seco (A. Boomert et al. 2013). These men were not born here, but they devoted decades of their careers to archaeology in Trinidad and Tobago. In so doing, researchers like Bullbrook made contributions to the organisation of archaeological concerns with establishment of the Archaeological Section of the Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1940s (Arie. Boomert 2000). Irving B. Rouse is credited with a host of breakthroughs in Caribbean Archaeology. In Trinidad, he devised the first relative chronology and prehistoric cultural classification, and he collaborated with Bullbrook and others in researching sites in Cedros, Palo Seco, Erin and Bontour (Arie. Boomert 2000). The researchers in this period were also interested in Tobago. The first archaeological survey of Tobago was conducted in this era by Geoffrey H.S Bushnell of the University of Cambridge in 1955.
The subsequent period, the 1960s to the early 2000s, was characterised by significant developments in the reconstruction of indigenous lifeways, research using historical records (ethnohistory) and a focus on cultural resource management. Names synonymous with this period are Peter O’Brian Harris, Archibald Chauharjasingh and Arie Boomert. The work of Peter Harris was very much in the tradition of his predecessors, Rouse and Bullbrook; however, he focused on early or preceramic cultures (Harris 1976). Harris is most known for his work on the Banwari Trace Archaeological site. Archibald Chauharjasingh contributed immensely to the historical and archaeological understanding of Lopinot. Chauharjasingh also collaborated with Nicolas Saunders to produce a broad and detailed survey of sites in Southwest Trinidad.
Arie Boomert has performed yeoman service to archaeological research in Trinidad and Tobago. A prolific author Boomert has published numerous academic journals and books that are required reading for anyone interested in the archaeology of this twin-island state. These books include Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco Interaction Sphere an archaeological/ethnohistorical study; The Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago: from first settlers until today; and Archaeological-historical survey of Tobago, West Indies.
Keith O. Laurence deserves an honourable mention on this list. Though not an archaeologist by training, the history professor from UWI, St Augustine took a keen interest in the business of preserving and regulating archaeological matters in Trinidad and Tobago. He was the first chairman of the Archaeological Committee and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Archaeology Centre of UWI St Augustine. Appointed by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1979, the Archaeological Committee functioned in an advisory capacity to secure the protection, preservation and restoration of sites of historical/archaeological and architectural significance. It was vested with a broad remit in all matters pertaining to archaeology in Trinidad and Tobago. After 2009, this responsibility fell to the National Trust with the establishment of the Archaeology sub-Committee.
The pioneers listed above are by no means the only contributors to the local progression of this academic discipline. Many others not mentioned devoted years of their careers to the advancement of archaeology in Trinidad and Tobago.
Figure 4 The Old Archaeology Centre, UWI St Augustine c1990.
Source: K.O. Laurence
Banwari Trace Archaeological Site
Figure 5: Human Remains found at Banwari Trace Archaeological Site known as “Banwari Woman”
Source: National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad’s most famous archaeological discovery is undoubtedly the Banwari Skeleton. Found at Banwari Trace Archaeological Site, located in south Trinidad. Banwari Trace is said to be the earliest known pre-Columbian archaeological site in the West Indies. It produced radiocarbon dates indicating a chronology of approximately 5000 B.C. (Arie. Boomert 2016). The site sheds considerable light on the patterns of ancient migration of people from mainland South America to the Lesser Antilles via Trinidad between 5000 and 2000 B.C. In November 1969, the remains of a human skeleton were discovered at the site by the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society. Lying on its left-hand side in a typical Amerindian “crouched” burial position along a northwest axis (Harris 1978), the skeleton was previously believed to be that of a man. However, later analysis found it to be from a woman who lived in Trinidad over 6000-7000 years ago(Arie. Boomert 2016). In 2000, the site was acquired by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, and in 2013 it was officially listed as a heritage property in accordance with the National Trust Act. The “Banwari Woman” skeleton resides in the Zoology Museum of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
Click HERE to learn more about Banwari Trace Archaeological Site.
The Red House Archaeological Excavations
Figure 6: Excavations at the Red House.
Source Basil A. Reid
The Red House is perhaps the most iconic and recognisable landmark in the city of Port-of-Spain. Since completion in 1907, this building has served as the seat of Trinidad and Tobago’s government, for over 100 years. This building has been a stage for many dramatic events in the history of this nation. It is the site upon which this democratic nation was born and where that democracy overcame an unprecedented challenge in 1990. In 2013 archaeological discoveries were made at the Red House site during a structural assessment of the foundations. “Shortly thereafter, the Office of the Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago hired Prof. Basil A. Reid and his team to undertake a detailed study of the site from June 2013 to January 2015” (Reid 2018). Data from this investigation suggest that the Red House site was a relatively large native settlement that was continuously inhabited for over twelve hundred years. Historical research revealed that the native village at the Red House was located west of the original St Ann’s River and might have fronted the Gulf of Paria during pre-colonial time (Reid 2018). The project was primarily conducted by a local team comprising UWI students. In 2019 the excavated human remains were reinterred on the grounds of the Red House by an amalgam of Trinidad and Tobago’s First Peoples.
Click HERE to learn more about the Red House
The Rockley Bay Research Project Scarborough, Tobago
Figure 7: Dr.Korum Batchvarov working at Rockley Bay, Tobago
Source: Institute of Nautical Archaeology
In 1677 Rockley Bay, which contains the modern Scarborough Harbour, was a theatre for a naval battle between Dutch and French forces. This battle has been described as one of the most fiercely fought in the Caribbean Sea. Tobago’s strategic position made it a prized possession for European nations vying for control of the region. The battle ended with the loss of 14 vessels of war and over 1,200 individuals(Batchvarov 2016). It was one of the most significant naval conflicts outside of Europe in the 1600s. Historical accounts of this battle are readily available, but the wrecks were not found until the 1990s during the THA’s construction of a new marine terminal in the harbour. Several efforts were made by the THA and international researchers to study this critical maritime site. Between 2012 and 2014, The Rockley Bay Research Project consisting of an international contingent of underwater archaeologists and students, conducted three research campaigns in Tobago. Led by noted researcher Dr Kroum N. Batchvarov of the University of Connecticut the team located and recorded multiple cannons, anchor, ceramic, and metal artefacts, as well as wooden hull, remains of five to seven shipwrecks ( Batchvarov 2016). Notably, the team is believed to have discovered the wreckage of the famous 17th-century Dutch warship Huis de Kruiningen (Kroum Batchvarov 2016). This prized vessel of the Dutch Navy exploded in the harbour during the battle. The research team also laid the foundation for Trinidad & Tobago’s first archaeological conservation laboratory and cooperated with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), the Tobago Ministry of Tourism and local stakeholders to promote professional underwater archaeology in Trinidad & Tobago.
The National Trust’s Role
in Archaeological Matters
Figure 8 – Top Left: UWI students excavating a site on Caledonia Island; Top Right: Derek Chung presents a lecture on Underwater Cultural Heritage in Tobago; Bottom Left: Prof Corinne L. Hofman presents a Lecture on Caribbean Archaeology;
Bottom Right: Menno L.P. Hoogland & Corinne L Hofman inspect a unit at Banwari Trace Archaeological Site.
Source: National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago
The National Trust serves as the regulatory and advisory agency responsible for safeguarding the tangible cultural heritage of Trinidad and Tobago. This mandate includes the preservation of archaeological heritage. The Trust also encourages academic research and provides lectures and tours to the public.
The Trust has endeavoured to fulfil this mandate in several ways.
- In 2013 Banwari Trace Archaeological site was listed as a legally protected heritage site in accordance with the National Trust Act of 1991 (amended in 1999)
- In 2019 the Caurita Petroglphs, located in the Maracas Valley, were also listed and legally protected.
- The Trust has hosted a number of lectures featuring several esteemed local and international researchers in the sphere of archaeology
- We continue to facilitate archaeological research in Trinidad and Tobago through partnerships with local and international academic institutions.
Boomert, A., Birgit Faber-Morse, Irving Rouse, A. J. D. Isendoorn, Annette. Silver, Yale University., Department of Anthropology., and Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 2013. The 1946 and 1953 Yale University Excavations in Trinidad. New Haven, CT; New Haven, CT: Yale University, Department of Anthropology ; Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Boomert, Arie. 2000. Trinidad, Tobago and the Lower Orinoco Interaction Sphere : An Archaeological, Ethnohistorical Study. Alkmaar: Cairi Publications.
———. 2016. The Indigenous Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago from the First Settlers Until Today. Sidestone Press. https://books.google.tt/books?id=54MFjwEACAAJ.
Harris, Peter O’Brien. 1976. The Preceramic Period in Trinidad. San Juan: Fundación Arqueológica, Antropológica e Histórica de Puerto Rico.
Kroum Batchvarov. 2016. “Archaeology of a 17th-Century Naval Battle: The First Two Seasons of the Rockley Bay Research Project in Tobago.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 45 (1): 105–18.
Reid, Basil A. 2018. An Archaeological Study of the Red House : Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
Renfrew, Colin., and Paul. Bahn. 1996. Archaeology : Theory Methods and Practice. London: Thames & Hudson.
Siegel, Peter E., Elizabeth Righter, and Inc. ebrary. 2011. Protecting Heritage in the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa, Ala.; London: University of Alabama Press ; Eurospan [distributor].
Written by Ashleigh John Morris
Ashleigh John Morris is a Heritage Preservation and Research Officer at the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago. Ashleigh is also an Affiliated Research Fellow at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies; and a PhD student attending Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has been involved in several international research projects including the ERG-Synergy-funded Research Project: Nexus 1492
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