ARCHAEOLOGICAL OF SAINT HELENA

Andy Pearson and Ben Jeffs, two of the Archaeologists here on the island at the moment, gave an update to Saint FM/Independent on what’s happening in Ruperts Valley.

Andy-The main thing is we’ve found a great deal more than we anticipated so we have a much larger team on the island now. We now see our work finished by the 15th September, which is our new departure date.

Ben-We’ve got an awful lot more manpower now, everything’s going extremely well at the moment, and we’ve more than a hundred bodies out of the ground now. There’s possibly as many as two hundred and fifty in all, just in the section that we’re lifting.

Andy-We’ve got significant areas which are still covered with rock which we’ve got to get rid of. Now, either that rock has prevented burial because it was just too hard to dig graves into, or, that rock’s much later than the burials and it seals them, so today we’ve got the JCB on site, we’re going to take off a large area of rocky surface and we’re going to see what’s below it and then we’ll just keep repeating the process until that whole section, where the haul road’s going to go through, has been cleared of burials. I think this is something that we need to put across; this is just a very small area of the whole cemetery. It extends, quite low in the valley and there are also quite large burial areas up towards the Quarantine Station. What we’re looking at is 1% to 3% of the total area. We are focused on the proposed haul road so we can clear that corridor.

Ben-There is somewhere between eight and twelve thousand in the whole valley, but that’s a bit uncertain. We’ve got some census data from the first nine years of the landings in Ruperts and there’s very nearly five thousand buried during those first nine years and it went on for thirty-something years in total, so there’s an awful lot there, but as Andy says, we’re only concentrating on the pinch point. The centre of the valley narrows anyway and there’s the Power Station, the Fuel Farm and then a gap. That gap is the only place that the haul road can go through and unfortunately that’s full of burials, so we’re just removing them from under there.


Exhumed remains are all individually boxed. When we excavate, we carefully clean so that we can identify each individual within the grave, because we’re getting up to five individuals per grave, so it can get quite confusing, but we very carefully make sure that we’ve only got one individual out, they get recorded, lifted and put into a large cardboard box, laid out carefully and flat on some padding, they then get put into safe storage. We’ve got an Osteologist, Anne-Sophie who is going to measure and examine all the bones, looking for age
and sex and whether there is any disease. We’ve had a fair bit come to light so far, the odd broken bone, little bits of malnutrition, rickets, bent lower legs, that sort of thing, but the most interesting bit of analysis that we’ve had so far is tribal tooth modification. The front two upper teeth have had a notch cut out of them, maybe in ten, fifteen percent of the burials we’ve seen that. Hopefully we can actually isolate that to a single tribe in a specific location in Africa. The same tribal teeth marks are used in South America today. Tooth modification is fairly common, but it’s a very specific pattern that we’ve got, it’s just a single, large notch out of the two front teeth. Somebody mentioned that it might be Malawian. There’s some eighteenth, nineteenth century pictures of locals from there with exactly the same pattern in their teeth.

Andy-So we’re hoping we can go back to either nineteenth century ethnographic data. Maybe these customs survive in the tribal heartlands in Africa. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to go back and identify the areas from where these individuals came. Research is made easier because we have the tooth indipatterns. Without these, scientific methods such as tooth analysis or DNA are necessary.

Ben-We’re getting few other clues. Because they’re slaves and anything valuable would have been stripped off the bodies and sold before they were sold into slavery. However a few burials include things like necklaces, glass bead necklaces with small shells cut in half and polished, but they’re pretty common across Africa. The main thing is the scientific analysis. We’re going to put a proposal together for Oxygenisotope analysis on the teeth, which allows you to locate origins almost down to the village location. Every water source in the world has a different ratio of two forms of oxygen and your teeth gradually grow to adulthood in layers. You can cut the tooth in half, polish it and then analyse each of those layers and by working out the ratio of the two forms of oxygen in those layers of the tooth and work out where they were drinking water at that period in their life.

We hope the proposals we are putting together for further scientific study will be accepted. Anne-Sophie will hopefully be coming back with another project to complete further research of this kind. We will go into a post excavation phase where we will be producing a report and getting all the illustrations of all of the burials sorted out and all of our data collated and of course, the burials will be re-buried. Hopefully we can get burial permits for somewhere in Ruperts. Andy- I feel quite strongly that the burials belong in Ruperts, that’s where they were originally laid to rest, that’s where their historical context is and where the other burials are. I think an area next to the present Church would be the logical place, but we’re still talking with the relevant St Helenian authorities. A lot of people have been coming to look and we’re happy for that to carry on, but the excavations will probably conclude within three or four weeks. So we thought we would have an Open Day. We were thinking of Sunday week for this. Sunday 17th August. We will firm up the details and advertise them next week. We want to show people what archaeology is, because little, if any, has been done on the Island before now. Also, it’s quite a sensitive subject, digging burials up, we would like to show how we’re doing it, just give people a good idea of how we go about this.

Ben-It is always an emotional thing digging up burials. You have to have a certain sense of detachment while you’re working. But you can’t be digging up human remains with hair and fingernails laid in the ground the way that they are without actually feeling this is a genuine human being laid out in front of you.

Recently we had a very small burial, certainly the youngest burial that we’ve had on site, it is a tiny, stillborn baby, probably not even full term, buried in a wooden coffin, which is the first coffin we’ve had on site. This baby also had a burial shroud. Usually they’re just put straight in the ground with no clothing or anything, but this was a particularly careful burial, a tiny little wooden coffin with almost a fetus inside; wrapped in

cloth with tiny little brass pins holding the cloth together and that’s particularly touching, because somebody’s actually gone to the trouble of building the coffin and putting it into the ground with some fair care and reverence.


open day
An open day was held on Sunday in Rupert’s Valley by the archaeological team excavating the graves of slaves in the area adjacent to the Mid-Valley Fuel Farm and on the proposed haul road. The archaeologists were on hand to give tours and to talk about the wider aspects of the project. Maps, diagrams and photographs of the site were also on display. Despite the variable weather, the open day proved a popular event and gave a fascinating insight into the history of Rupert’s Valley.