Photo courtesy of Delaney Dammeyer
What did you do over the summer? This question has been circling around the Elizabethtown College campus as the first two weeks of classes have come and gone. For six Etown students, the answer was participate in an archaeological dig on St. John’s Island, one of the United States Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea.
From May 18 to May 28, 2017 graduate Summer Musser, senior Nicole Troy, senior Alyssa Vielee, junior Quad Abdul-Aziz, junior Olivia LoGiurato and sophomore Delaney Dammeyer worked at the Virgin Islands National Park, which is a part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). The students worked from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. under the supervision of field, lab and documentation interns at the Park. They also worked with head archaeologist Ken Wild.
As they gained experience in both the field and the lab, they built upon knowledge from AN361 Archaeology and Geology Lab, taught by professor of anthropology Dr. Robert Wheelersburg, who organized the trip.
“It’s different on pen and paper than your own experience, going out and digging the hole and being able to see it yourself,” Abdul-Aziz said.
Their main goal was to help determine if the demolition of old bungalows on the island would disturb or destroy archaeologically significant sites. To accomplish this, the students used three methods to locate artifacts.
The first method was digging test pits, or one-meter-by-one-meter square trenches, near the bungalows.
The students dug these holes with six-foot-long steel dig bars that weighed about 30 pounds each. Through this method, they found pieces of pre-Columbian pottery, or pottery made by Native Americans before the 16th century.
The students documented the exact location of these artifacts and helped perform the preliminary analysis. They also learned to categorize and label artifacts from previous excavations, following NPS standards.
“My favorite part was being in the dirt and getting dirty and having fun,” Musser said.
The second method was searching around nests dug by iguanas. The iguanas would dig holes in the area between the beach and the land. In the process, the iguanas would unearth artifacts, mainly pre-Columbian pottery.
The third method was snorkeling and scuba diving. Through this method, the students found human bones, which they believed were from African slaves.
Before being acquired by the U.S. in 1917, the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark. Although slavery was illegal in Denmark, the islands were used to transport slaves to other countries. Slaves also worked on the islands’ sugar plantations.
The students found the bones in the shallow water around St. John’s Island. They believe this is because when slaves died, their bodies were taken to the beach to be washed out to sea, but instead of being washed out, many bodies sank in the sand and remained close to shore.
LoGiurato worked in the Cinnamon Bay Archaeology Museum & Lab to help write the preliminary reports for these bones and bones from previous excavations. LoGiurato mainly studied femurs. After analyzing the remains, the National Park Service will have a proper burial for them.
Vielee was the site photographer and took photographs to document information, such as the location of artifacts and the coloration of the sediment layers in the test pits. Vielee had experience with professional cameras as her father and older sister are professional photographers.
While working on St. John’s Island, the students lived in elevated tents in the Cinnamon Bay campgrounds. Because the Virgin Islands are near the equator, the sun set around 6 p.m. Abdul-Aziz remembered that at night, they would see hermit crabs scatter as their flashlights illuminated the ground on their way to the bathroom.
During the day, the temperature would rise to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. Due to heavy rainfall May 17, dormant mosquitoes’ eggs had hatched and mosquitoes filled the air.
“Even the people who lived there said it was the worst mosquitoes they have had in three or four years, so we were just getting eaten alive,” LoGiurato said.
“We had bug spray cans everywhere with us, every little nook and cranny we could figure out,” Troy added.
Photo courtesy of Delaney Dammeyer
In their free time, the students went swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, shopping and sightseeing. They also listened to Wild talk about the island’s history. At the end of the trip, Wild swore the students in as Junior Rangers and gave them badges.
Wild was also working on a paper about the pirates that used St. John’s Island before the Danes took control. Abdul-Aziz remembered that during one of Wild’s lectures about the pirates, it was raining heavily and the wind slammed shut all the shutters and doors in the lab, making them jump and wonder if they had angered the pirates’ spirits.
In past years, Dr. Wheelersburg has organized similar archaeology trips in different locations around Lancaster County.
This trip was the first one overseas. It was financed by Etown’s Public Archaeology Laboratory, a Collaborative Interdisciplinary Scholarship Project (CISP) grant and free housing from the National Park Service.