June 10, 2022
SVG National Trust unveils repatriated stolen artefacts

The unveiling of repatriated stolen artefacts from various archaeological periods was conducted by the St Vincent and the Grenadines National Trust on Saturday, June 4.

Items recovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in the United States of America and delivered to the Embassy of St Vincent and the Grenadines in Washington in January of this year have found their way back home.

Chairperson of the SVG National Trust Deirdre Millington-Myers stands next to an artefact that had been donated to the Trust by the daughter of the individual who found it

In a ceremony held at the Curator’s House at the Botanic Gardens, the Governor General, Dame Susan Dougan, historian Adrian Fraser, former Minister of Culture, Rene Baptiste, and Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves were some of the many enthusiasts present at the unveiling.

The artefacts were found in a raid conducted in 2014 at the home of 91-year-old missionary, Donald C Miller in the State of Indiana. They were in the company of tens of thousands of rare cultural artefacts from across the globe that are suspected as having been obtained in violation of antiquities laws, says the US Embassy in Bridgetown, who wrote a piece on the matter.

Miller is thought to have visited St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) in 1995.

Chairperson of the SVG National Trust, Deirdre Millington-Myers, on Saturday spoke about how these pieces of history were transported from the Embassy in Washington, and the identity of the artefacts.

After learning of their existence in March, “The Trust immediately contacted Ambassador, Louann Gilchrist in Washington DC, in whose custody the artefacts were placed, to register our interest in having them returned to St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Myers noted.

With an extensive discussion on how safely to repatriate the artefacts, it was decided “that the safest mode of transport was by hand and in the custody of a government official bound for St. Vincent.”

In order to do so, a support letter was provided, “stating its knowledge and approval of the return method by transferring custody from the Embassy in Washington DC to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

In the meantime, photographs of the archaeological pieces were delivered to the Trust, which set about looking to the National Archaeological Collection for answers.

“We concluded that these objects were adzes, which are essentially tools much like axes – one is made from basalt and was used for shaping large pieces of wood, including for the creation of dugout canoes and the other is made from conch shell for lighter work,” Millington-Myers explained.

The adzes made from conch shells are mainly known to be unearthed in the Grenadines.

“Adzes differ from axes in that the working edge is set perpendicular to the handle; they have a domed upper end and a flat bottom with a distinct bevel towards the cutting edge,” she added.

The basalt adze is a stone tool made by battering pieces of rock into the desired shape and sharpening on large rocks known as work stones, the Trust official expounded. “Many of these stones are still seen in coastal areas around the country and in very much the same way that the collection of petroglyphs should be protected heritage, so too should be the collection of work stones,” the Chairperson emphasized.

The conch shell adzes are made from shell of the queen conch and are apparently excavated from sites at Miss Pierre and Chatham Bay on Union Island.

It is likely that the shell adze is from the Troumassoid period; that was between 1000 and 1200 years ago, it was revealed.

“These two small objects being unveiled here today may seem insignificant but they represent an important connection to our past, to our story, to our origins, to the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Certainly, as we continue to unearth, retrieve, identify, catalogue and test such objects our patchwork becomes a quilt which evolves into the true Vincentian history book,” Millington-Myers noted.

However, different to the stolen artefacts were also other artefacts on display which had been delivered to the National Trust by other individuals.

A plain, round bottomed bowl from the Suazoid period of 1200 – 1450 AD was apparently found by a woman at the Park site in Bequia, taken to the USA and delivered to the Trust by her daughter upon her death.

Also on display were items that form Susie Schaffer’s collection. This is an Austrian woman who lived in the Grenadines for 27 years, married and combed the coasts for the artefacts.

She scoped out sites at Richmond and Miss Pierre on Union Island and Saline Bay on Mayreau between 1995 and 2010.

Before she returned to Austria she handed over the artefacts from varying archaeological periods, including the earliest Saladoid period, to the National Trust.

The Trust thanked these persons for their donations and encouraged others to do the same.

The Prime Minister, who was the feature speaker, impressed upon the audience the significance of the moment.

“The genius of our peoples, formally unschooled, made these artefacts which have been repatriated. In the same way, in our contemporary period, the genius of our people without formal training build houses with local materials and developed distinctive cuisine and so on and so forth,” Gonsalves explained in his speech.

“What we have here, being repatriated, or what has been repatriated, is our memory and it is something which flows from this genius of our people,” he continued.

At another time in his address, he noted, “If we don’t know where we have been, where we come from and our journey and how we have arrived at this point in the year 2022, with the civilisation which we have, we are not going to be able to do many things, we are going to be like without any roots. And we have to be rooted, we have to have the permanence of being, we have to belong somewhere and we have to have that capacity to look back and know what is there and look forward.”