Collaborative archaeological research at school construction site

Three archaeologists are doing research at the construction site of the future new Saba Comprehensive School building in St. John’s. So far, President of the Saba Archaeological Center (SABARC) Jay Haviser, together with Menno Hoogland and Sven Ransijn from Leiden have found historical artefacts from the late 17th century to the 18th century, including ceramics and glass bottles. The team also discovered an early 20th century grave of a newborn.

Jay Haviser (right) indicates the layer of research at the construction site of the futuire, new building of the Saba Comprehensive School (SCS), with at left, Menno Hoogland and in the center, Sven Ransijn.

There used to be four parcels with four houses on the site, explained Hoogland of Leiden University. One house belonged to the Wilson family, two to the Barnes family and one to the Hassell family. The open area in front of the SCS and the gym has been bought by the Public Entity Saba. It is the location where the new high school will be built. The archaeological work is done in consultation with relatives of the families who used to own property at the site. Archaeological research is important as the area in the past has been identified as a pre-historic site with an Amerindian settlement dating back to 1000 to 1200AD, but the history of the past 200 years is also an important part of Saba’s heritage.

Through the good cooperation of SABARC with Leiden University, Hoogland was contacted to do archaeological research before the construction, explained SABARC President Haviser. Hoogland brought one of his former Caribbean archeology students Ransijn with him to Saba. All three archaeologists work for free and only their travel and lodging expenses are paid.

Precise work

A week ago, the archaeologists started excavations, with the help of local excavator operator Lincoln Hassell who has been doing precise work in order not to damage the artefacts on the site. A place of interest on the site is the trash pile behind an old wall, where the people used to throw their trash. In the underneath layers, the archaeologists have been finding mostly historical artefacts and a lot of 19th and 20th century material.

The found material shows that St. John’s was a relatively wealthy village. “We retrieve a lot of information from the ceramics. The ceramic pieces tell us what the people used back then and what their societal status was. Some pieces are porcelain which mostly wealthy families could afford,” said Haviser. The collected artefacts will be stored at the SABARC in the Saba Heritage Center.

Menno Hoogland (left) and Sven Ransijn (right) investigate the newborn grave.

Wooden coffin

Behind the former Barnes’ houses, an adult grave and the grave of a newborn were found. The newborn grave consists of a small wooden coffin. In it, the archeologists found a very corroded iron circular plate, two plastic buttons and a safety pin. The safety pin will enable the archaeologists to determine the period in which the newborn was buried. The plastic buttons indicate that the grave is from somewhere in the 20th century. No bones were found in the child grave, which is customary with these graves because newborn bones are very brittle. The archaeologists have carefully removed the wooden coffin for storage. Because the wood is decomposed, the coffin came apart in pieces when it was retrieved from the site.

On the Hassell parcel, there are four intact tombstones, of which two have name plates, dating from the 1920’s. Marvin “Juni” Juana has been clearing the house area to facilitate the mapping and further research by the archaeologists. Students of the SCS will be invited to come look at the site next week. The archaeologists will work until the end of this week.


An example

The three archaeologists said they were very content that they had been contacted by the Public Entity Saba to research the area before construction. The archaeologists in particular mentioned the valuable involvement of Commissioner Rolando Wilson and Zoubeir Elatmani of the Planning Bureau. The researchers said this project could serve as an example for other construction projects of government and semi-government entities. “This is important because Saba has a special history and a very valuable heritage, starting some 4,000 years ago until the middle of the previous century,” said Hoogland.

Commissioner Rolando Wilson commended the work of the archaeologists. “St. John’s is a very old village with a rich history. As a person who was born and raised in St. John’s and still living in this unique village, I am much aware of the importance of this research. I am very content that the archaeologists were willing to do this, and I thank them for all their work,” said Wilson.

Contemporary archaeology

A very important aspect of the archaeologists’ investigations is the involvement of the local community. This way of doing research is a new ‘stream’ in academic archaeology, and is called contemporary archaeology.

“We try to connect members of the community to our work. At the end we will reconstruct the history of this parcels of land by combining data from archaeology, history from old maps, and most importantly oral history and knowledge of Saba community members,” said Hoogland. The archeologists have questions like: who made the faced stones? Where? At the construction site? How were they made? Is the evidence found at the construction site like debris of stone chips?

The three archaeologists will be available for questions about the St. John’s research at the Saba Heritage Center in the Windwardside on Thursday, March 2, from 7-8pm.


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