Occasional Essays
February 27, 2009
Significance of the archaeological finds at Argyle

A study financed by the EU accepted our Government’s argument that Tourism would become one of the major sectors of the economy. It, however, pointed out that while the Grenadines could and were doing the typical sun, sea and white sand tourism, mainland St Vincent would have to develop a different kind of experience (waterfalls, biodiversity, black sand beaches, volcano, forests, petroglyphs and our Amerindian heritage).{{more}} As if further evidence were needed to buttress this argument, in a study, Tax and Tax Administration, commissioned by our Central Bank, it was argued that the OECS had six areas of strength in regard to tourism development. They included: (1. Historic Buildings and Sites, (2. Heritage Areas, (3. Ecotourism/Nature, (4.Music, Entertainment and Culture, (5. Yachting/Boating, (6. Diving and Deep Sea Fishing. SVG was the only one of the OECS states to have all six areas of strength. In three of these areas, SVG was in fact double starred. Yet as we all know, for many years Tourism has been contributing less to our economy than it has to that of the other OECS states. By embarking on the construction of two jet airports, the ULP government moved quickly to put an end to this state of affairs.

The airports themselves will be the main contributors to the expansion of the tourist industry. The archaeological findings at the Argyle Airport, however, will strengthen St. Vincent’s claim to being the OECS state with the most notable heritage. They have certainly enabled us to unearth the past on a scale not seen anywhere else in the OECS and support the claim that SVG probably has a history stretching back to at least 160 A.D. They can certainly help to diversify the tourist product as recommended in the EU report mentioned earlier.

In an inspired move by IADC’s CEO Rudy Matthias and National Trust’s Chairman, Kathy Martin, the services of archaeologists were procured to look at the site of the proposed runway. Archaeologists today can work out logically where settlements are likely to be. Moreover, they have the tools that enable them to pinpoint the areas in which digs ought to be conducted. In the case of St. Vincent, ground penetrating radar helped them to locate precise areas where anomalies occurred, which could be prehistoric evidence of human activities. A total station, a device familiar to surveyors, was used. It emits a laser beam which reflects off a survey pole with a liquid crystal embedded in it. With the push of a button, the position of the survey pole, as it is moved from point to point round a field of survey, is recorded on an electronic chip. The chip memory then is transferred to a computer and a map is produced.

The Cubans used a backhoe, part of the equipment provided by the Venezuelans, to remove the top soil. Incidentally, no one has been keener on this prehistoric excavation project than Leonardo Perez who heads the Cuban team assisting in the construction of the airport. Furthermore, as we shall show later, our Amerindian heritage is directly linked to Venezuela.

So far, archaeologist Joe Moravetz reports, some 18 skeletons, known in the jargon as burials, have been unearthed. As we all know, our Amerindian ancestors sometimes buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Thus the houses had first to be found. With the wooden posts used to build homes long gone, archaeologists look for ancient post locations by changes in soil colour created by decayed posts and mixed soil fills. These they call postholes. All skeletons are found near houses with some within and others outside the house. Some of the skeletons were complete, while others were only partial remains indicating a practice of secondary burial, meaning that some bodies were dug up and part of the skeleton removed and buried somewhere else. Primary and secondary burial was practiced by the prehistoric cultures of the Caribbean.

Complete skeletons indicating primary burials have been recovered in an extended position, laid out with the head to the east and feet to the west. Complete flexed skeletons are curled up in a foetal arrangement, positioned on side or back. Positions of two flexed skeletons from Argyle indicate an almost north to south orientation, with the head to the south in one instance and north in the other.

Saladoid artefacts have been found, suggesting that some skeletons are 1500 to 2000 years old, much earlier than the Carib settlements. One of the skeletons has been covered with a Saladoid griddle. Bone samples from this skeleton and others will be sent to a laboratory and radiocarbon dated (C14) to determine how long ago they lived at Argyle. This is an expensive procedure, but much needed to pinpoint the period of occupation by the Saladoid on St. Vincent.

Saladoid ceramics are named after the type site Saladero on the Orinoco in Venezuela, where they were first identified.

A second oval house has been identified, and this is thought typical of a later people who lived about 8oo years ago. Nearby Suazoid pottery shards from this period were discovered thrown away on a refuse midden.

A third house, oval in shape and smaller than the long communal house probably predates the long house judging by the pottery found near it.

When I drove on some Austrian roads, long narrow and very straight, obviously laid out since Roman times, and visited monasteries dating back centuries, I often wondered what was in St. Vincent at that time. Now we all have an insight. The archaeological findings are not merely for boosting tourism but also for giving us a sense of identity and of place. Argyle has obviously been continuously settled for centuries. The potters who made the Saladoid and Suazoid ceramics, the Calinago, the Colonialists, the Indians and us.