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Towards saving our archeology
About 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, T&T was part of the South American mainland. After they broke off and became separate islands, they served as the first stop for migratory peoples moving into the wider Caribbean. Some of those migrants didn’t move on, populating areas like Cedros in south Trinidad and Milford in Tobago. The artefacts they left behind, carved into mountainsides, buried in the ground and were preserved under the sea, when discovered, tell myriad stories of life 6,000 years before the arrival of Columbus.
Recreating how the first peoples lived can change postcolonial attitudes in T&T, putting the country’s later history of slavery and colonialism into a wider context of migration and cultural change.
According to experts featured in the Alex DeVerteuil film Buried Treasure, the belief that history began with the colonial era might explain why in T&T the management of archaeology is almost non-existent and why there is no legislation dealing with heritage.
The film was shown on March 13, at the launch of the National Trust’s week of activities on local heritage conservation and management. The events were aimed not only at addressing the urgent need for improved awareness of our archaeological heritage, but also at gaining insight from a group of international experts from the US and the Netherlands about how to ensure effective legislation and inter-agency partnership and co-operation for effective heritage management.
The film screening of Buried Treasure, reinforced that T&T is considered “a good laboratory” for archaeological studies in the new world. It covered the fact that the oldest skeletal remains found in the region, were dug up in Banwari Trace, San Francique and described local heritage as so varied, that artefacts simply float across from the Orinoco Delta.
Viewers learnt that the Pitch Lake has also been an invaluable preserver of indigenous tools, weapons, canoes, and plant materials. They also heard that sacred sites belonging to early inhabitants have been discovered in North Trinidad and in the mountains of Mason Hall, Tobago.
The film gave the public the opportunity to hear the thoughts of now deceased UTT lecturer in archaeology and anthropology, Dr Peter Harris, who discovered the Banwari fossils and whose 40-year career left a large collection of artefacts and documented field research.
Harris’s international colleagues, lamented that “it was a great shame that the people don’t value their heritage.”
The panel discussion which followed the film, gave each of the experts the opportunity to share lessons from their own backgrounds working in heritage management, and to touch on issues like planning, control, management, policy and education initiatives. Dr Neal Lopinot is the descendant of Count Lopinot (Charles Joseph Comte Loppinot de la Fresilliere) who founded what is now known as Lopinot Village, after receiving a grant of 478 acres of land from the King of England.
Dr Lopinot is also the Director of the Center for Archaeological Research (CAR), Missouri State University and a researcher on Trinidad archaeology and the Lopinot estate.
He explained that he wanted to help T&T become a better conservator of heritage and that he was personally interested in not only what life was like for the indigenous people, but also for the slaves.
“Who will tell the story of the people who toiled on these estates?” he asked tearfully. His short presentation highlighted that the scope of local heritage preservation extends to the other people who came—the African slaves about whom little is written in a local context, the East Indian indentured labourers, the French, Dutch, Spanish and first wave of Chinese immigrants.
His four-decade long career, he said, would enable him to assist in establishing a central place to record findings and to build capacity through training and education. Dr Arie Boomert, the leading expert in T&T archaeology from the Leiden University in the Netherlands, spoke about his time as a research fellow attached to the University of the West Indies.
He remembered Peter Harris, with whom he had collaborated on numerous occasions, and expressed his commitment to honour his wishes to “establish a purpose” for the “huge, valuable collection” he had left behind. Boomert spoke about the “rarely mentioned mythological and romantic aspects” of “unravelling the narratives from the past” and how, personally his long career had continually been motivated by the desire to discover “the big thing that has never been found.” As a specialist in local archaeology, he clearly believes in the possibility of that big thing being discovered here.
Christopher Pulliam shared his experience of working in archaeological heritage management in the US Army Corps.
He spoke about the successes of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, which “administers one of the largest federal collections of archaeological artefacts and associated records”, most of which were excavated during construction of reservoirs and associated water control programmes.
Backed by US Federal law, the US Army Corps trains civilians to ensure preservation of heritage items and access to them by the scientific community and those in public education. To date they have worked with over 26,000 civilians. Pulliam said his organisation has faced many of the same challenges as those faced in T&T and is currently “running into the same resistance, politically”. He said he wanted the opportunity to look, listen and compare before offering advice and comments.
“If you want to know where you are going, you need to know where you are coming from,” said Dr Willem Willems, co-president of the International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management and professor of International Archaeological Resource Management at Leiden University, Netherlands.
The faculty of archaeology at Leiden University is the largest in the world and includes experts on the Caribbean. Willems said that he was not among the Caribbean experts but as co-project leader of Nexus 1492, a 15 million Euro Caribbean area archaeology and cultural contact heritage studies project, his management and technical expertise are obviously considered transferable and valuable. He explained management is key, when it comes to heritage that cannot be stored, like architecture and industrial archaeology like railways.
T&T’s way forward
When questions were invited from the audience, representatives of organisations of indigenous tribes questioned the rights of the archaeologists to essentially what they considered to be their archaeology. Arima businessman and President of Partners for First Peoples’ Development, Roger Belix, asked “who are the true owners of the artefacts?”
He said that permission had never been sought from indigenous peoples and that there has never been a treaty. “I hope my descendants sue somebody,” he said. Another participant Michael Tang Yua, who said he is a descendent of the Warao tribe didn’t ask a question but advised that indigenous peoples should know where their sites are, and keep them privileged as he believed that many artefacts had already left the island.
The experts answered where they could, explaining that in the US, permission had been sought from the Native Americans and bones were sometimes reburied. They tried to reassure the audience that all artefacts found in T&T belonged to T&T and that they would support, where they were given the chance, claims for indigenous rights.
The discussion reflected a divided T&T that did not consider itself as having one heritage or identity but many, with representatives of each group of ‘the people who came’ making a bid for heritage ownership. So the test will be whether the vast experience of those who have successfully created heritage preservation and management plans backed by legislation in their own countries, can be translated into a workable local action plan, despite the differences.