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Trunk By Ruin

Trunk Bay Archeological Dig

When Christopher Columbus sailed past St. John on his second voyage, he either did not see, or at least did not report, any signs of the island being inhabited. As there is no historical information concerning previous populations of our island, we must rely heavily on archeological studies in order to understand the nature and way of life of those who lived here before us.

About 2,500 years ago, Native Americans originally from the river valleys of South America made the difficult ocean crossing between Trinidad and Grenada, 80 miles to the north and out of sight of land. From there, they proceeded up the island chain arriving on St. John around the time of the birth of Christ. They were farmers, fishers and pottery makers, lived in communal houses in villages, and carried on long distance trade.

Like the Europeans who came to the islands 2,000 years later, these settlers did not find their newly discovered territory to be unoccupied. The Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were already inhabited by a coastal people, gatherers and fishers who lived in small and widely dispersed settlements. And like Columbus and the Europeans, the newcomers overwhelmed the pre-existing culture they encountered.

Around 700 AD, some of these new settlers established a village at what is now called Trunk Bay. Here they lived, planted yucca, fished, gathered fruit, fabricated pottery, tools and weapons and conducted their social and religious ceremonies until about 900 AD, when they apparently left in a hurry, evidenced by the finding of cooking pots, which were still filled with food.

When the Trunk Bay facilities were improved several years ago, archeologists conducted a second dig in the area that was to be disturbed. About 18 inches below the surface layer of hard packed sand the researchers encountered a brown layer of earth rich in prehistoric artifacts. About 18 inches below that, they found a culturally sterile zone, meaning that there were no more artifacts.

The excavation uncovered hundreds of pottery shards as well as shellfish remains, animal bones and plant material, useful for carbon dating.

The pottery fragments have been separated and classified by units and levels, that is, what area of the excavation they came from and the depth at which they were found. Now comes the hard part, the piecing together of the past.

The first step in the process is called cross mending. Pieces of pottery that obviously fit together, but have been found in different units or levels, are put together at this time and their original location documented. Next comes the separation of pottery fragments by attributes. Shards are separated by size and form. Rims, bases, handles and appendages are sorted into different piles, while workers remain on the lookout for pieces that fit together or can be identified as to form and function, such as pots, griddles, or ceremonial vessels.

The researchers will then observe the nature, style and age of the artifacts and their changes over time. They will also study the relationship of this dig to the Cinnamon Bay dig, where artifacts were found from a village that sprung up just after Trunk Bay was abandoned, and to other archeological investigations elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The goal is not only to better understand the chronological development of the people who lived at Trunk Bay, their technology, social development, religion, food, housing and way of life, but also to better understand the overall prehistory of the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.

Volunteers are now being sought to wash and tag artifacts, to look for cross mends, to aid in classification and if you prove to be good at your job, you may even be taught how to glue pieces together. Those interested in volunteering can call Ken Wild at 693 8950 extension 223.