Friday, June 15, 2012

Bermuda's First Colonists

Contrary to popular belief, neither the English Sea Venture castaways nor the 50 settlers that the Plough brought in 1612 were Bermuda's first European settlers. That honor goes to the Spanish or, more precisely, their livestock. Some time in the early 16th century, a passing Spanish ship landed black Spanish boars or hogs on the island to fend for themselves and multiply - a pattern they followed on many Caribbean islands as well. Winslow Homer even did a painting of them - perhaps on Smith's Island?

I suggest this because yesterday as we began excavations at the CHB (Cotton Hole Bight) site, we found the lower right tusk of a hog in a very strange carved out basin or bowl-like feature. Jill Bewsher, the bone expert who generously gave my students a guest lecture last week on human osteology, identified it as an adult specimen and noted it had a lot of wear - suggesting it was a feral hog who foraged a lot rather than a pen-kept variety.

The feature itself is puzzling, but hopefully as we open more of this site we'll have a better ideal of its purpose.

After Quarin completed this unit, we opened up three more meter squares across the middle of the CHB  site to get a good cross-section of the interior living space and hopefully some dateable artifacts to establish the occupation range of this house.

Meanwhile at the Oven site, things got very strange. In the two northern units we came down on a spread of very large quarried stones - some quite thick and with irregular cut or faceted sides.

The vertical cut of a very clear posthole was revealed as the blocks and their associated fill was removed.
Units with most of the large quarried blocks removed - posthole cut at bottom middle.

The oddest feature of all was an alcove-like hole cut horizontally into a bedrock outcropping. It kinda looks like a shrine of sorts and we joked that it was the first stone doghouse, for the Sea Venture's dog - who stayed with Carter, Chard, and Waters on Smiths Island in 1611 and 1612... and is pictured hunting hogs!

By the end of the day, we were down to the earthen floor occupation layer of the house - compressed in various places by the weight of the quarried blocks that had fallen in from above and settled into its surface. I also took out a thin layer of ashy sandy soil with lots of hand-wrought nail fragments from the hearth surface and revealed the raised edge of the base of the hearth, along with a few brick fragments that may have been used to line its surface.

We had our lunch at Cotton Hole Bight on the beach, to get a feel for an area Carter, Chard, and Waters could easily have chosen to build their shallop in early 1612. We noted red clay deposits eroding out among the sand here - highly unusual for Bermuda.

 Over lunch, we spotted a large number of West Indian top shell snails in the water. Mimi then made the bizarre declaration that if you hum to a snail, it will come out of its shell. I was skeptical to say the least, but she picked up a top shell and proceeded to prove it!

Our "Snail Whisperer" then taught everyone else to pull off this feat - but no matter what note I hummed, the top shells steadfastly refused to budge for me. So I won't quit my day job...

Today my daughter Charlotte arrived in Bermuda to dig, along with her friend Rebecca and Rebecca's mother, Linda (who won't be digging), so instead of going out to the site we did a walking tour of St. George's to understand the evolution of architecture locally from the early 17th c. to circa 1820. Bermuda's timber-frame buildings are all gone, but we went over how they were framed and constructed and their likely layout (single-room hall or hall-and-parlour forms). St. George's boasts a number of 1690s stone houses that were likely built along the same plans as their timber predecessors. I noted how Bermudian vernacular builders often added a small porch to the front (to regulate access and keep heat or cool air in the main hall) and kitchens to the rear (to keep heat and smells from the core of the house), which yielded a cruciform shape. I also noted that in early Bermuda stone houses, windows were often placed very close to the wall plate, doors tended to be small, chimneys were large and placed on the outside ends of the house (effectively to  serve as buttresses) and roofs were gabled through the 1740s, when hipped roofs were apparently introduced.
The Old Rectory, c. 1699 - a classic example of an early stone Bermudian vernacular house.
We then talked about the arrival of Georgian (formal) architectural forms, where both the facade and plan of houses were rigidly symmetrical and incorporated a central passage to regulate visitors' access to public and private rooms within. James Deetz's readings also warned students about retro-fitted Georgians - earlier vernacular buildings that were later modified to make them look Georgian on their exteriors but retained asymmetrical floorplans and window placements on their back sides.

Armed with these general diagnostic tools, I turned the students loose to "read" a series of buildings (playing the game "Georgian or Not Georgian"). The scavenger hunt was made a bit more difficult by the unexpected arrival of a cruise ship, which unleashed a thousand visitors on the old town :-)  We ended up at a stripped down house off Queen Street where the students could see interior construction details not normally visible. The students figured out that the back area of the house had been added later, due to its different floor height and lack of a cellar - and also that this was where the  cooking and much
 domestic work was performed. Quarin spotted faint traces on the wall to indicate where a staircase had led up to the upper floor and also where the hearth and a brick-lined bake oven had once stood. Others noted the sidelights and fan light surrounding the front door, indicating a Georgian form with a central passage.

In all, this day of "vertical archaeology" with sites standing in three dimensions complemented our ongoing work on our house sites, where we have only floorplans to work with.

We ended the morning with a visit to St. Peter's Church, which has wonderful, exposed examples of complex timber joinery in its roof - probably using timbers salvaged from the first 1619 building when it was reconstructed in stone in circa 1713 after a hurricane had leveled the first church.
We then made a unique and unforgettable field trip below the church's floor. In 1815, the south part of St. Peter's was extended, essentially sealing a portion of the graveyard and front steps of the 1713 church under the floor of the new wings. We went down an access hatch into this preserved space, where we sat on brick steps no one had trod on in 200 years and studied gravestones that were enclosed within - and thus remarkably preserved against erosion. It was dark and claustrophobic and nowhere I'd want to be if the Zombie Apocalypse were to occur, but made for a fantastic end to the tour - illustrating how building extensions create archaeological TPQs.

In the afternoon, the students headed into Hamilton to the Bermuda Archives to continue working on their research papers and I collected Charlotte and company at the airport. An absolutely gorgeous day and it pained me not to be digging, but it provided a new foundation (ha!) for understanding our site and cultural changes in Bermuda and gave everyone a couple of days to rest up before the final push next week to get down to bedrock in all our remaining open units. Tomorrow we have off as well, although I'll be going out to Smiths Island with Charlotte and Rebecca to dig. Days off are for wimps!

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