Thursday, March 19, 2009

From Vibe and Andreas on making the Hassel Island Report

Hassel Island 1688 – 1801
An unusual Plantation

Prepared for the National Park Service, US Virgin Islands
Andreas Latif & Vibe Maria Martens, University of Copenhagen

1. The making of the report
2. How it was to read ”the obsolete language” of gothic Danish hand writing:
i.e. Mr “Hot king son”
3. What was the most extraordinary thing about researching in the archives
4. The most difficult thing about writing the report
5. What we think about the outcome of the research

1.) When we started writing our report back in February 2008, the general plot of the report was actually already in place. One month early Vibe and I were presented with the proposal that we could write the early history of Hassel Island, which meant everything as far back possible before the first British invasion in 1801. We knew from looking at the old maps and photos, that Hassel Island would be a somehow tropic and very Caribbean experience. However, Hassel Island would prove to be a different encounter, then that we had in the beginning of the process, where we were merely looking at photos and maps of the island. Together with Ken Wild and Niklas Thode Jensen we decided to focus on writing the story of early life on Hassel Island, a story stretching from 1688 to 1801, the starting point determined by which sources was available in the National Archives. Back then one should remember that Hassel Island was an isthmus or peninsula; first in the 1860s did it become the island that we know today. What we wanted to achieve with our report was to uncover who and why people lived on Hassel Island. A task that was as amusing as it was difficult.
2.) From February 2008 to the start of May 2008 we spent nearly every day in the Danish National Archives searching for owners of the Hassel Island plantation. Sitting in the archive amongst all the old boxes with documents that have not been opened for centuries makes you feel rather humble, but also privileged. The worst thing about being at the archive is that you use the first 3 weeks to learn the difficulties of the gothic style hand writing. However, once you have cracked the code it is a great achievement to have accomplished. One of the funniest memories from the archives was when we stumbled across a guy from the 1730s called Mr.“Hot king son”. One thing you have to remember when you are sitting in the archives is to be very quiet - but when we when found this guy “Hot king son” we were in fits. This Mr. “Hotkingson” was probably a Mr. Hutchinson, but because the Danish clerks were Danish (obviously) and because there were no tradition of “correct spelling” as we know it today; as well as the clerks probably had difficulties pronouncing the “tch” in Hutchinson, the name was spelt in this rather amusing way. Mr. Hutchinson became a Mr. Hotkingson.
3.) The most extraordinary thing about being in the archives was when we struck gold, for example when we discovered one of the owners had been murdered on Hassel Island, and subsequently were able to uncover the police report and the document listing the administration of the estate. Sitting day in and day out without making significant progress can be quite demanding. But then, when you least expect it, the information you were hoping for will show up, and that is a wonderful feeling, when you can tie up loose ends and uncover new histories.
4.) Looking back at the process the most difficult phase of the writing process was combining the archaeological findings on Hassel Island with the archival findings from Copenhagen. We were not certain at any point in the writing process whether the archaeological part and the archival parts finds respectively would support one another. Yet another aspect in writing the report was the fear of writing something uninteresting and irrelevant. However, when we got back from the U.S. Virgin Islands and read the report again, it wasn’t half bad; so that was a nice surprise.
5.) The outcome of this project between National Park Service and Copenhagen University is a 100 page long report which contains the early history of Hassel Island. We are quite happy about the result of our report. We have been very pleased with this opportunity to really study in depth and it has been a great experience being in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Last of all, is that it has been a great pleasure working with Ken, Niklas and all the other lovely people we have met in connection with this internship.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Volunteers help clear Sieban and L'Esperance Ruins

St. John's Lone Baobab Tree, Sieban Plantation Ruins.

Hey everyone! Katie again, just wanting to get everyone up to date with what has been happening in the archaeological world here on St. John. Sadly, Jen recently returned stateside to continue working for the University of Iowa and Lauran has left as well to finish her Master’s thesis. Everyone here at the Biosphere misses them both already! However, our new archaeology intern, Andrew, is here! He’s another Midwesterner, like me, and is thrilled to be working with the National Park Service doing archaeology on St. John.

Since the last blog entry in mid-January, work has been moving along at an inland historic plantation site known as Sieben. With the help of National Park volunteers clearing brush from the surviving structures, we’ve been able to complete our surface collection and map all artifacts using our GPS unit that gives us up to 10 centimeter accuracy if the vegetation is reduced. We must recover this surface material now that visitors have been directed through the ruins by a new trail. It is important that we get the artifacts where they were left historically. This information can tell us so much about the site like how old certain sections and buildings are, different activity areas and about the people who lived and died here. So please if you see an artifact leave it and let us know. We have recovered a wide variety of interesting historic ceramics that were produced throughout Europe, also bottles, and even a large iron cooking pot that could be from the early 1700s. Some of the household ceramics that we’ve collected are datable to the early 18th century up until the mid-20th century.

Lauran, Jen, Katie and Ken, after a surface collection at Sieban.

Land list records indicate that Johann Hienrick Sieben owned the land and built his plantation in 1718, making Sieben plantation one of the earliest on St. John. So far, artifacts collected from the surface number over one thousand and we’re not done yet. Lauran’s knowledge about historic ceramics is impressively extensive and over the past few weeks, she’s been teaching me all she knows about analyzing the historic ceramics that have come from Sieben. On a side note, one of the fantastic natural features present at the site is the African Baobab tree. Growing along the edge of the ridge overlooking Reef Bay, it is only one of its kind still present on the island.

A big thank you needs to be given to all the folks who have volunteered their time helping us clear and cut brush from the ruins over the past few weeks. We really couldn’t have done all that’s been accomplished with out you.

Jeff Chabot and his crew of hard working volunteers, on the Grand Staircase at Seiban.

Speaking of volunteers, Lauran, Jen, and I had a potential archaeologist helping us wash the artifacts from Sieben at the Cinnamon Bay lab. Thanks for your help Tralyn!

Clearing began last week at L'Esperance, another plantation located in the same valley, from the same time, but just north of Sieben. We’ll keep everyone up to date with what is happening and what we find out about this plantation in the coming weeks.

L'Esperance Ruins

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Lauran's Farewell

Hi, again! It’s Lauran. Well, I’m very sad to say that this will be my last blog entry…for a while at least. I’m heading back to South Carolina to finish my Master’s thesis, then preparing to go to West Africa for Peace Corps. I cannot even say how much I’ll miss St. John, especially doing archaeology here! I’ve been so lucky to work with such great people here; Ken, Susanna, Katie, Jen, all of the park employees at the biosphere, Jeff and all the wonderful Tuesday/Thursday volunteers. The volunteers have really helped us get the plantation ruins cleared so that we can do the archaeology and GPS the structures. This has been a dream opportunity for me to do archaeology here because the island has so much history and many well preserved sites! I’m going to miss working with everyone and I’m really going to miss the island! I want to thank Ken Wild for giving me the opportunity to work here and I want to thank the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park for their support!! I hope to come back soon!!