Step by step, shovel by methodical shovel, one of the pioneers of Turks and Caicos archaeology led crews of local volunteers on a ten-day trip across at least six centuries.
The place: A soon-to-be developed tract in Providenciales’ south shore Long Bay community. The pioneer: Anthropologist Dr. Shaun Sullivan, whose archaeological survey of the Turks and Caicos in the mid-1970s produced some of the most important discoveries from the islands’ prehistoric period.
The mission: Examine the South Bank site, an area that had attracted Sullivan’s attention during his original surveys, while giving local students a hands-on introduction to the methods of archaeology and the lifestyle of the Lucayans, a Taino people who once called these islands home.
And the first lesson of the 10-day expedition? Proceed deliberately.
“To reconstruct what happened here,” Sullivan told the assembled students and adult volunteers in October, “we must carefully record everything as it is encountered in the ground, or the context is lost.”
Artifacts alone are mute, archaeologists say. But artifacts in their full context – the precise location and state of everything unearthed during a controlled excavation – have the power to speak across vast expanses of time.
In the Turks and Caicos, that context generally tells a story about a pre-Columbian world of mobile, seafaring Native Americans whose interconnected culture once thrived across the West Indies.
Prior to 1492, most of the people who inhabited these islands were Lucayans, a branch of Taino culture whose ancestry stretched from Argentina through the Bahamas. They fished, farmed and hunted across the Turks & Caicos island chains for roughly eight centuries, but were wiped out less than three decades post-European inhabitation.
Beyond cursory notes in Columbus’s journal of his first voyage to the Americas, little was known about the Lucayan period in the TCI before the arrival of Dutch-born American archaeologist Theodoor DeBooy in the 1910s. Another six decades would pass before Sullivan – a PhD candidate at the time – arrived in the mid-1970s. The archaeologist made several visits, conducting extensive surveys and a nearly year-long dig near Armstrong Pond on Middle Caicos.
Sullivan’s research at the Lucayan village site near Armstrong Pond produced evidence of a settlement that lasted more than a century; efficient agricultural and fishing systems; exploitation of local salt sources, a complex society characterized by maritime trade with Taino partners in Greater Antilles, public constructions, to include a village plaza and road; and advanced astronomy that included observations of the solstices and equinoxes. That settlement thrived until the arrival of the Spanish.
The South Bank Site was first discovered and test excavated by Sullivan in 1976, while pursuing leads to a separate site derived from Theodoor DeBooy’s reporting. A revisit to the site in 2018 confirmed that portions remained undisturbed and provided stimulus for additional research in response to the news of pending development of the site.
To capture and preserve prehistoric cultural resources, an effort was launched that involved partnerships with Providenciales businesses and non-profits, incorporation of excavation volunteers from the local community and schools, and the expertise of fellow archaeologist and Turks and Caicos National Museum Director Michael Pateman.
After obtaining approval and support from the site’s owners and developers, the two secured further funding and organizational support for a 10-day volunteer expedition in October. Nine students from the British West Indies Collegiate, plus three homeschool students, signed on.
The two veteran diggers divided the crew into four teams (shovel testing, controlled excavation, screening, and analysis), then watched as the volunteers began filling wheelbarrows with dirt from test holes. Other volunteers sifted that dirt through screens. As bits of indigenous pottery and other artifacts began to emerge, the team identified promising areas for detailed excavation.
One clear signal from the past soon announced itself: Palmetto Ware, a heavy, rough, shell-based pottery associated with Taino cultures. And on Day Three, excitement from an unusual shovel test spread across the crew. The two archaeologists stepped in, gently expanded the area, and reported the news: “It appears to be the base of an earth oven,” Pateman said. That was great news, since charcoal from the oven could be dated by radiocarbon analysis, which is a highly accurate form of age determination.
By the project’s conclusion, volunteers had meticulously weighed, photographed and cataloged material taken from two controlled excavation zones at the site. Some artifacts may offer clues about the inhabitants’ trade networks. Other modest bits – including microscopic analysis of starch grains embedded in shells and ceramics – may yet reveal data about the Lucayan diet. Samples taken by Lucayan basketry expert Charlene Dixon Hutcheson are undergoing analysis.
The archaeologists expect lab reports by summer, and regardless of the results, all the artifacts will be returned to the TCI Museum, which hopes to expand its permanent branch on Provo – offering the island’s past a future here.