Digging up the past in Bermuda

One of my favourite TV programmes when back in UK is Timeteam – Tony Robinson (Baldrick) talks through a 3-day targeted dig somewhere in Britain and you learn small fragments of history while wishing you had considered archaeology as a degree instead of whatever.  It is one of the things I have missed since being in Bermuda, the familiarity of his voice as a background to Saturday afternoons as we watched back-to-back episodes on Channel 4.
Bermuda TIme Team

Bermuda TIme Team

I did did not take much persuading therefore to join a National Trust Visit to the Smith’s Island Archaeology Dig last Sunday afternoon.

 

Smith's Island (picture from Prof Jarvis's blogspot)

Smith’s Island (picture from Prof Jarvis’s blogspot)

Smith’s Island sits in St George’s Harbour, 60 acres, unconnected to the main islands, a few houses in the middle section but mainly undeveloped and very overgrown.  It is important historically because way back in 1610 some of the first settlers made this island their home for a while.  The story goes that three men, Christopher Carter, Edward Waters and Edward Chard, declined to return to England with other survivors of the Sea Venture expedition and they remained to establish themselves in the hope of growing tobacco and perhaps other crops which might make them rich when traders next called in on Bermuda.  I am not quite sure why but they are sometimes referred to as the Three Kings, though they were just ordinary sailors and not noble or rich, I guess they were the effective kings of Bermuda for a couple of years.

Sir Thomas Smith, after whom the island is named, was one of the Adventurers of the Virginia Company (later Somer’s Isles Company) – I don’t think he ever lived there, owned it or even landed there himself.

In 1612 when the first intentional colonists came over from England they stayed to begin with on this island, moving later to St George, most likely because they realised they would need more space.  A few families set up farms on the island, during the 17th and 18th centuries the Pitcher, Asser and Sharp families were known to live here. 1786 saw a Dr George Forbes build himself a substantial home and he is also ought to have set up a building for temporary housing smallpox victims. The darker aspects of the island continued when a whaling station was established there in 1920.  However the Bermuda National Trust now own one third of the island and the government have set up a reserve on another third.

The only way to get there

The only way to get there

Twenty or so of us boarded the BIOS boat across the harbour to Smith’s island.  It was hot and humid so the breeze and spray was welcome, the barrel of ice cold water even more so (thanks to Peter for realising none of us would bring sufficient for our needs and carrying the barrel)

Pretty much overgrown

Pretty much overgrown

The Dig

Professor Michael Jarvis, a modern version of Indiana Jones, leads a group of students from University of Rochester; for them it’s a credit-bearing five weeks of hard work, not cheap either – $4000 plus air fares – but they aren’t all history or archaeology majors, one I spoke to was doing business studies and her friend was a psychology major.  Then there are volunteers, both Bermudian and from elsewhere.  It began in 2010 and will probably continue until 2018, always the last week of May and the month of June so quite hot for digging.  But if you fancy five weeks on Bermuda ….

 

The group blog about their excavations on http://www.smithsislandarchaeology.blogspot.com and if you go to that site you can see images of some of the finds and a lot more technical detail.

To date they have looked at one site that probably had a wooden framed house on it, another they hope will be the home of Christopher Carter, a cave site where there is evidence of people living at some point and a small building near a bay the map refers to as Smallpox Bay.  Some of the artefacts include a military button and an animal bone, cherts from non-local stone and pieces of glass.  I realised that an awful lot of digging, brushing and sweeping goes on for every small piece of evidence and came to the conclusion that neither my knees nor my patience would cope with this sort of work.

This was probably the last visit to the site for 2014 but if you get a chance to take this trip next June I would strongly recommend it.  It was a very pleasant if dusty afternoon!

The images below are my own photographs.

 

Under a blue tarpaulin

Under a blue tarpaulin

Wall of smallpox hut with possible GR inscription carved into wall (look very carefully for that!)

Wall of smallpox hut with possible GR inscription carved into wall (look very carefully for that!)

An oven, possibly at the site of the home of Christopher Carter

An oven, possibly at the site of the home of Christopher Carter

image

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