For Immediate Release
June 21, 2008
New Archaeological Project to Study Historic-Period Sites in the BVI
John M. Chenoweth
Department of Anthropology, 232 Kroeber Hall, Berkeley, CA, 94720
The first steps in a new archaeological project, which aims to be a long-term exploration
of the BVI’s eighteenth and nineteenth century history, will take place this summer. In
August, a team of graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, plans to
begin surveying and mapping on BVI historic sites, in preparation for archaeological
research. The project will be led by Mr. John M. Chenoweth, a PhD student in the
Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United
States. The project will form the basis for the doctorial dissertation of Mr. Chenoweth,
who already holds a Master’s Degree in Anthropology (specializing in Historical
Archaeology) from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, USA.
There have been several previous archaeological projects in the BVI, including the well-
known Belmont prehistoric site in the West End, and the work of Mr. Michael Kent of
HLSCC. Due to the increased interest, a new BVI Governmental committee has formed
to oversee and approve of archaeological projects like Mr. Chenoweth’s. The committee
is composed of Ms. Luce Hodge-Smith, Director of the Department of Culture, Mr.
Joseph Smith-Abbot, Director of the National Parks Trust, and Dr. Michael O’Neal,
President of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.
Mr. Chenoweth has commented that the rich history of the British Virgin Islands provides
many opportunities for historical and archaeological study. The goal of the project is to
learn about the past peoples of the BVI—how they lived their lives, saw their world, and
built their communities in the 1700s and 1800s—using the historical record and the
archaeology of the places they left behind. Building on this information, the project will
also aim to address questions of anthropological significance beyond the BVI.
The first site to be surveyed this summer will be the “Vanterpool Estate” on Little Jost
van Dyke Island, which was once the home of the family of Dr. John Coakley Lettsom.
The Lettsom site has been selected because of the interest of the landowners, who are
also eager to learn more about the site and its history, and the unique nature of the area´s
history. The family who has own the land for many years is a local one, and mostly lives
on St. Thomas: Mr. Kelvin A. Vanterpool, Ms. Anita St. John, Mr. David Blyden, and
Mr. Mario Leonard are among the members of the landowner family who have been
consulting on the project. One cousin, who goes by “Nippy,” is also a Jost van Dyke
resident. This site has also been selected becuase of it’s excellent state of preservation
and the historical associations of an earlier landowner, the famous Quaker Dr. Lettsom.
Most people already know something of the planters and small farmers who, around
1740, converted to Quakerism and formed a small Meeting on Tortola.
But this project is not just focusing on Quakers. Although interesting, Quakers are no
more important a part of the BVI’s history than any other. The project begins with
Quaker peoples not because they are more important, but because there is other
archaeological work on Quakers in the United States and in England which can provide
Says Mr. Chenoweth, “While my focus is on the Quaker period, I am very interested in
understanding the whole history of the site, from pre-Columbian native groups who lived
there, to the famous Dr. Lettsom and his Quaker contemporaries, to the not-so-famous
but equally important African-descended enslaved people who lived there (and were
freed there). This little island encapsulates, I think, many fascinating parts of the entire
history of the region, from pre-History down to today.”
Indeed, we know that many different people, including males and females, those of
European and of African descent, and even adults and children all lived and worked side
by side on these lands. Sadly, history has largely silenced the voices of many of these
residents of the site, and of the region in general, especially women and those of African
descent. Archaeology is the best means available to access these voices, understand how
they lived their lives.
Archaeological work will consist of mapping, survey, and excavation. As in all
archaeological work, the goal of the project is looking for trash: items with no value to
those who deposited them, and no value except information today. Archaeologists have
developed sophisticated procedures to recover not just the things left behind by people,
but far more importantly the information they contain: most important of these is
“context”, the precise relationship any object has with the soil and other objects around it.
This is why it is vital that nobody disturb archaeological sites, remove artifacts, or dig
any holes at them until archaeological work has been conducted.
Mr. Chenoweth hopes that this project will be the beginning of a long term collaboration
with British Virgin Islands institutions, such as the Department of Culture, National Parks
Trust, and H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, and local non-profits such as the BVI
Heritage Conservation Group, and Jost van Dykes Preservation Society. There are many
possibilities for future projects, from the Nottingham estate at Long Look, to the
Pickering Estate and site of the old Quaker Meeting House, to the Kingston site just east
of Road Town.
Mr. Chenoweth would be interested in communicating with those who are interested in
the BVI’s past, history, and archaeology. Volunteers from HSLCC may assist the project
this summer, and future projects may have room for other volunteers. Public lectures at
HLSCC and elsewhere, and programs with local youth groups and schools are also
planned in order to share the project and its results with the BVI community.