Have a ball with an anvil bird

African Sites
August 2, 2002

No temples, pyramids or lost cities - Caribbean archaeology has long been the Cinderella at the ball of American archaeology. Yet, arguably nowhere else in the world have so many "pasts" been constructed, subverted or ignored as in the many islands of the Caribbean.

Hitherto, most archaeology in the islands has focused on the pre-Columbian remains of the indigenous Ta!no (Arawak) and Carib peoples (and their predecessors) encountered by Columbus. For most of the 20th century, this was the only "past" deemed worthy of investigation. What has emerged is an extremely complex picture of different population movements between c. 500BC and AD1500. The prehistoric Caribbean was evidently a melting pot of Amerindian cultures and ethnicities.

After 500 years of colonial history, the Caribbean remains a cultural mosaic, though of a very different kind. African, European and Asian peoples have moved (or been moved) into the region. The archaeological traces of this population transfusion are the focus of this book - a fascinating and timely snapshot of current work in Afro-Caribbean archaeology.

E. Kofi Agorsah explores the influence of West African cultural traditions on the nature and structure of Afro-Caribbean settlements in Jamaica. In an explicitly ethno-archaeological way, he demonstrates how the importance of clan/ family affiliations in northern Ghana are reflected in the escaped-slave (Maroon) village of Accompong through the clustering of households and compounds. Even on plantations, African ideas, practices and material culture survived as a way of negotiating identity and resistance in a white-dominated world.

Equally complex strategies are explored by Paul Farnsworth in his study of the African cultural landscape of the Bahamas. Here, where 80 per cent of the population is of African descent, the beginnings of Afro-Caribbean history and culture are traced to ancestral slave experiences on British plantations. Rather than simply describe objects, the author tracks their consequences in the present. We learn, for example, how archaeology reveals that the traditional Bahamian cuisine of fish and conch descends from the slave diet. The complete absence of local African-style pottery also marks out the different trajectory taken by the Bahamas compared with most other Caribbean islands. Perhaps unexpectedly, plantation archaeology offers a way of establishing a distinctive Bahamian cultural identity in the face of increasing Americanisation and Afro-Americanisation.

Equally innovative is Candice Goucher's analysis of the transmission of African metalworking technologies across the Atlantic to the Caribbean as seen through investigations in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. A key element is the idea of "technology as performance", as shown in the Trinidadian shrine to the Yoruba deity Ogun (god of iron), and African-derived beliefs about the fearsome power of blacksmiths conceptualised as the "anvil bird" whose ominous call sounds like clashing metal. The author perceptively observes how cultural memory is embedded in the microstructure of performance art and ritual - a point echoed in different ways by Mark Hauser and Douglas Armstrong's comprehensive study of low-fired earthenware ceramics from St John in the US Virgin Islands.

In this important book, we perceive another Caribbean, one full of rich and unsuspected finds, evidence that raises issues and poses questions largely unfamiliar to non-specialists. Afro-Caribbean archaeology will add to the sum of archaeological knowledge, but it should also reconfigure and sensitise the discipline itself.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London. Between 1992 and 1994 he was an archaeologist at the University of the West Indies.

African Sites: Archaeology in the Caribbean

Editor - Jay B. Haviser
ISBN - 1 55876 186 1and 187 X
Publisher - Markus Wiener
Price - £54.95 and £22.95
Pages - 364

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