When Western professor Neal Ferris led an archaeology field school on the small Caribbean island of Nevis this summer, his goal was to teach students how to use their skills in service of community heritage work.
“It’s about being part of that community, rather than being researchers parachuted in, and then leaving,” he said of the three-week journey to Saint Kitts and Nevis.
Six undergraduate students and a graduate student were part of the field school, which provided foundational skills in archaeology, such as identification, excavation, and handling artifacts when they’re recovered. The group worked closely with the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.
“We can connect all that material culture to the historical record. We have written records to augment the archaeological records and then, for the more recent past, we have oral history,” Ferris said.
“The archival record of Nevis is spotty, especially if you go back in time, partly because it’s a tropical environment, so records don’t last well, and earthquakes and fires that have ruined some records too. We need archaeology to help augment the less crisp, clear historical records.”
The group worked to enhance historical knowledge around a Nevis landmark, the former Bath Hotel, a 1778 luxury hotel built during colonial rule – known as the first tourist destination in the Caribbean.
Finding signs of homes
The volcanic hot springs in Nevis are a central part of its history, drawing guests who sought their healing properties to the Bath Hotel. Visitors are believed to have visited the hot springs as early as the 16th century, Ferris said. The kilometre-long waterway created a culture of healing and wellness over many generations. It is also a part of the country’s colonial past, with enslaved workers across the eastern Caribbean sent to the water to cure injuries or illness. The hotel also drew celebrities and those in search of luxury.
“The history of the waters becomes one of both colonial and communal heritage over the next two centuries after the hotel is established,” Ferris said.
His students worked to excavate areas of the gardens around the hotel, as well as Gallows Bay, near the hot springs.
“What we were doing is walking the surfaces we’re studying to collect artifacts, which is how you figure out where archaeological sites are,” Ferris said.
Important finds this year included signs of residential history in Gallows Bay.
“Doing this work since 2017, so far every year has been a great success at advancing and layering this rich story.” – Neal Ferris, archaeology professor
They set up an excavation grid with one-metre squares to be searched with hand shovels. The soil was then sifted through screen to recover artifacts, Ferris explained.
The team found bits of ceramics, a piece of a finger puppet, fishing gear and even chamber pots. Each artifact carries its own history and context.
The children’s toy piece, the head of a finger puppet, was a particular sign.
“You simply don’t find that kind of object except in a residential context,” Ferris said. “That’s a child that grows up and becomes the grandmother of someone living there today. There’s a real visceral connection of community to this heritage.”
Field school forged relationships
Students in the field school stayed in a local apartment building in Charlestown, forming close friendships and getting to know the area. A nearby bar even put up a Western flag before the end of the trip.
“It felt like we had our own little community there and we all could work and learn and share our excitement with each other as we found stuff,” said Anna Riberdy, a fourth-year student studying archaeology and anthropology with a minor in studio art.
“Not only do I have a lot more knowledge in these areas – I will start talking about colonial ceramics until my friends tell me to shut up – but I made great friends as well. I’m still in touch with my neighbour from the apartments,” she added.
Given her background in art, Riberdy was tasked with making sketches and taking measurements of a car engine found during the trip, one of the most memorable finds, alongside a fishing weight and a completely intact inkwell.
She described the group’s excitement when it was pulled out of the ground, a find that had the students running around their site.
Riberdy recalled hearing about the field research school from others in the Anthropology Society, a student-run club at Western where she is now vice-president of communications. She encouraged others interested in similar experiences to join the group.
“The whole experience was great, especially learning about the culture. Everybody on the island is super friendly and was very warm and welcoming towards us. It was a neat experience, because we were there for three weeks, we got to know the people, it was almost like we were living there,” said Hanne Andersen, a fourth-year anthropology student focusing on bioarchaeology.
She recalled learning how to make pottery in a traditional style still known by just a handful of people on the island, and taking a seven-kilometre hike up the Nevis Peak volcano.
“I think it took us four hours. It was so much fun,” Andersen said.
Riberdy gave credit to Ferris for creating an educational and enjoyable field course.
“He was a mentor, we all called him our archeology father. Instead of Mrs. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus, it was Dr. Ferris and his work van that we piled into. He was fantastic.”