Thursday, August 14, 2008

Archaeology at an Epidemic Hospital

Greetings! My name is Mandy Barton and I am a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I interned with the park for 6 weeks during May and June to begin research on my Master’s thesis, which focuses on the 19th century/early 20th century leprosarium/yellow fever hospital on Hassel Island.

The Cistern at the Epidemic Hospital and Mandy gridding the site area.

My main goal during the 6week internship was to strategically survey and record the site. To accomplish this I collected as much of the site’s artifacts as possible; mapped the building foundations and surface scatter of glass and pottery that covered the site; took photographs of everything, from my 2x2 meter grid to the Iguanas living in the old cistern; as well as acquiring GPS points on the site to accurately locate it for future research. On top of that I wanted to analyze as much of the collection as possible before I left. Just the sheer size of the site, as well as the amount of stuff that had been thrown away by the patients at the leprosarium, was amazing, and a little bit intimidating. But once I got past some of the challenges the site posed- such as the unrelenting sun, lack of shade, and constant encounters with “catch-n-keep” that plagues the island- I happily “dug in”.

The history of the hospital remains mostly unknown at this time. When working on a historical site archaeologists attempt to utilize as much of the documentary record as possible, as archaeology and historic texts usually provide different types of information about the same time or place. It appears that most of the documents that may reference the Leprosarium were taken to Denmark when the United States bought the islands in 1917. Luckily for me, Ken Wild and the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park have created a great program to bring Danish history students to the island to collaborate with the archaeologists and local historians and others interested in the preservation of the island’s past. Hopefully, with their generous help, more information about the hospital’s past will be revealed.

Back to the archaeology. The only structure remaining at the hospital is a cistern (where our afore mentioned Iguanas were living), but there are also three stone foundations remaining within close proximity to the cistern, which may have been hospital and dwelling structures for the patients. Unusual to the archaeology I typically do, there was very little excavation during the artifact recover. This was due to the shallow dirt deposits at the site. The island’s bedrock was encountered less than 20 centimeters below the surface. Therefore the vast majority of the collection of artifacts involved laying a grid consisting of 2x2 meter blocks and surface collecting. This grid helped keep a spatial record of where the artifacts were being collected from. Where an artifact was located, what archaeologists call provenience, is important because it can reveal information about who used it, when and even why- all information that just the artifact by itself can never tell us. Once we finished the collection on Hassel Island, the artifacts were all loaded on the Haulover and boated back to St. John and the archaeology lab at Cinnamon Bay where I began analysis. The artifacts consisted primarily of pottery, or ceramics- broken dinner plates, cooking pots and tea cups used daily by the people at the hospital. Much of these are what we call “transfer-printed” wares, much of it blue-on-white old fashioned patterns like our grandmothers used to have, and stone-ware bottle pieces. I also collected an astonishingly large amount of glass shards- mostly wine and gin bottles. I am still in the middle of analysis, but the wine and gin bottles may have been used for medicinal purposes. We also recovered beads, a marble, and several pipe bowls. An interesting find at the hospital was the recovery of two ceramic dolls parts, which suggests the possibility that children were living at the hospital as well. All these artifacts tell us that there were probably many different kinds of people quarantine together at the site- young and old, rich and poor. The artifact analysis was not completed before my time in the Virgin Islands ended, but I will hopefully be returning next summer to complete this task. I am extremely excited to learn about what all these artifacts can tell us about the lives of a diseased population that was forced to live isolated from the rest of the community.

Being back in the heat and humidity that is eastern Tennessee, I am missing the turquoise sea and white beaches of St. John. My thanks go out to the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park for their support in bringing me to the Caribbean to do this research. I anticipate returning to the islands next summer to finish my research. Look forward to more updates as we learn more about life in the leprosarium on Hassel Island!


lottery numbers said...

that doesn't happen everyday. wish you all the best.

cindy born said...

I was really impressed to read about your work on Hassel island. Do you know if there was ever and ice company on Hassel island near the old steam repair company?