Carriacou is a quiet island idyll in the southern Caribbean. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, this was an archetypal deserted island. Or so it seemed. Now, archaeologists are revealing a vibrant picture of its pre-European life, as Scott Fitzpatrick explains.
Away from the big resorts and private villas of other nearby islands, the small island of Carriacou is a sleepy stopover for only the most adventurous of tourists and sailors. It was said to be “the most beautiful of all the little isles”, by French explorer Jean Baptiste du Tertre in 1656, the first European to visit Carriacou. Though he went on to remark that it had many sheltered bays, and could probably sustain a colony, he made no mention of meeting any islanders during his visit. This seemed to be the ultimate desert island, but was this really the case? Did anyone live on this remote island before Europeans arrived? And if so who? And how?
To answer these questions, for the past six years our international team has been surveying and excavating on the island. The results have surprised even us; Carriacou is not just an island paradise: we have uncovered an archaeologists’ paradise. But before we arrived on the island, our picture of Carriacou was decidedly patchy. The island is part of the tri-island nation of Grenada and, like much of the Grenadines, had been largely neglected by archaeologists. Though a scattering of archaeologists had made short and sporadic visits to Carriacou since the 1960s, and had identified a few pre-European Amerindian sites on the island, little was really known about the island before the modern era. So, in 2003, together with archaeologists Quetta Kaye from the UK and Michiel Kappers from the Netherlands, we conducted our first survey of the entire island, which covers about 32 square kilometres. We found – or relocated – a dozen Amerindian sites, several of which are extremely archaeologically rich. Two, in particular, are changing the very way in which we view the pre-Columbian settlement of the Caribbean. Of these, the site of Grand Bay offers fascinating insights on Amerindian life in the region, as illustrated in the following pages.
Grand Bay marks the spot
The beatific Grand Bay is situated on a sandier portion of the more rugged eastern coast of Carriacou. Michiel had already visited it in 1999 and his photos showed a site awash with thousands of sherds, animal bones, shell, tools, and in some places, human remains. Grand Bay had long been known by locals and visitors as a good location to find old pottery and other artefacts for their personal collections. Therefore, even before our work began, we knew that this site was special – not only for its size (it stretches for over 120m along the coast) – but for the sheer quantity of material visible on the surface. Rarely has such a site been found, let alone investigated, in the Caribbean.
However, during our 2003 survey, we immediately noticed that Grand Bay had changed dramatically from the 1999 photos: there seemed to be less archaeological material on the surface – having probably been removed by souvenir-hunters – plus the coastline was clearly eroding. Considering the site’s importance, we were determined to investigate why this might be happening. So it was that in 2004 we began excavating at Grand Bay, bringing with us an army of students from North Carolina State University (USA) and University College London (UK): several graduate students who were specialising in zooarchaeology, a ceramic analyst, a geologist, a bioarchaeologist, and an illustrator.
Our excavations began along the southern half of the site near the coast where the strewn material – the midden – was most dense. The stratigraphic layers were nicely visible along the beach, giving us a good idea of what we might expect to find and its depth. We also opened other trenches, towards the middle of the site, which had been more actively eroding on the surface from water runoff. Since most of the midden had already disappeared by the time we arrived, it actually made it easier for us to get down to the yellowish-brown subsoil to see previously buried features such as postholes or graves. Peeling back the layers of earth with our mattocks and trowels, we began to uncover remnants of the final period of pre-European occupation commonly referred to as ‘Suazan Troumassoid.’
For the full article, see CWA 38