Tuesday, March 5, 2024
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Safeguard Grenada’s time capsules

By Dr Jonathan Hanna, PhD, RPA, former curator of the Grenada National Museum

There are time capsules under our feet, everywhere we go – little (sometimes big) remains of those who were here before. A soil stain, a piece of pottery, a piece of rust, a bone. We push them aside and pay no attention. Yet, they hold a surprising amount of information for those with the skills to read them.

We, ourselves, are also continuously leaving marks in the ground. Think about the remains left around shops and restaurants, the bones you throw to dogs or the litter scattered after an outdoor festival or concert. Think about what that might look like in 1,000 years. Indeed, archaeologists in the future will be able to see some of what happened today, just like we can see some of what was happening in the past.

In the correct hands, these disregarded items are time capsules; they become invaluable sources of information. As we say in archaeology, “It’s not what you find, but what you find out.” It’s not the objects themselves, but the information they contain. We unlock this information through scientific methods by systematically studying those remains left behind. We look at distinctive typologies such as how ceramics or stone tools changed over time; we look at human bones; we look at soil stains and the chemical processes affecting them, including isotopes, radioactive decay and ancient DNA.

Above all, we look at the context of each finding; how deep an object is, other things with which it is associated. The less we know about the original context, the less of the story we can tell. We can’t learn much from a random piece of pottery found at an unknown location. We can say a few things about it, but only things that were learned from elsewhere, from artifacts whose context is left intact and well-studied.

Grenada is losing its time capsules at an alarming rate. Construction is everywhere. On the surface, that seems good, but only when thoughtfully done. We must understand it is not development itself, but the process of development that is so important. Did we maximise employment for high-skilled jobs as much as low-skilled ones? Are we building a middle class or just perpetuating poverty? Low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs are not development; they are the status quo (or worse).

This is why impact assessments are so important. These are studies conducted long before a project gets off the ground on its environmental effects, its archaeological effects, its social effects, among others. Such assessments employ the best and brightest Grenadians: scientists who tend to leave and never come back. How many Grenadians study marine biology or ecology or botany? How many get jobs here after they graduate? Impact assessments are an entire industry that can employ more of our intellectuals and slow the ‘brain drain’. Yet, we are ignoring them in the name of speed, in the belief that the low-paying jobs at hotels are an achievement. They aren’t. But that marine biologist we ignored, that wetlands ecologist, that ornithologist, that archaeologist and other professionals would have been paid a lot more. And they wouldn’t have to leave for the UK or Canada or the USA to send money home doing the same work they could (should) be doing here.

As in the developed world, Grenada needs to do better impact assessments and we need to include archaeology in those studies. Doing these studies beforehand fixes unforeseen problems and adds integrity to projects. It gets a bunch of scientists to look at projects and point out any flaws — not to stop or slow construction, but to make it better. There are ancient skeletons here that should be exhumed and recorded first. There are wetlands that must be protected. There are endangered sea turtles nesting on some of our beaches that need sufficient buffers to survive. Otherwise, development is not constructive but becomes destructive. Whether we’re talking about forests or beaches or archaeological sites, the physical destruction of the landscape has lasting effects, even when the construction is left unfinished.

Despite laws requiring them, few government-funded projects conduct thorough impact assessments at all in Grenada, and the private/semi-private projects that have done EIAs were not required to do archaeological surveys or excavation, even when the projects are taking place above identified archaeological sites. By requiring archaeology in EIAs, government can ensure that we look at some of these time capsules before they are thrown away.

Impact assessments not only improve the project and employ Grenadian scientists, they also allow us to document things before they are destroyed; in archaeology’s case, before they are gone forever. There are no Amerindians living on Grenada’s landscape today making pottery or drawing petroglyphs; there are no enslaved Africans making improvised glass tools or stuffing sugar molds, no French or British soldiers making bone buttons or firing grapeshot. These remains are all we have left; they are a finite resource. The burials falling into the sea at Sauteurs and Molinere and True Blue are some of the few that have survived, against all odds, and yet continue to disappear before our eyes.

We are at a crossroads in Grenada. One road embraces the opportunity to improve project feasibilities, employ Grenadian scientists, and document things before they are destroyed. The other road confuses fast construction with development and leads to a cycle of continuous poverty for too many people. Let’s encourage government to make the right choice for the health of our economy, environment and heritage, ensuring we safeguard the things that make our tri-island state unique for future generations.

Safeguard Grenada’s time capsules

By Dr Jonathan Hanna, PhD, RPA, former curator of the Grenada National Museum

There are time capsules under our feet, everywhere we go – little (sometimes big) remains of those who were here before. A soil stain, a piece of pottery, a piece of rust, a bone. We push them aside and pay no attention. Yet, they hold a surprising amount of information for those with the skills to read them.

We, ourselves, are also continuously leaving marks in the ground. Think about the remains left around shops and restaurants, the bones you throw to dogs or the litter scattered after an outdoor festival or concert. Think about what that might look like in 1,000 years. Indeed, archaeologists in the future will be able to see some of what happened today, just like we can see some of what was happening in the past.

In the correct hands, these disregarded items are time capsules; they become invaluable sources of information. As we say in archaeology, “It’s not what you find, but what you find out.” It’s not the objects themselves, but the information they contain. We unlock this information through scientific methods by systematically studying those remains left behind. We look at distinctive typologies such as how ceramics or stone tools changed over time; we look at human bones; we look at soil stains and the chemical processes affecting them, including isotopes, radioactive decay and ancient DNA.

Above all, we look at the context of each finding; how deep an object is, other things with which it is associated. The less we know about the original context, the less of the story we can tell. We can’t learn much from a random piece of pottery found at an unknown location. We can say a few things about it, but only things that were learned from elsewhere, from artifacts whose context is left intact and well-studied.

Grenada is losing its time capsules at an alarming rate. Construction is everywhere. On the surface, that seems good, but only when thoughtfully done. We must understand it is not development itself, but the process of development that is so important. Did we maximise employment for high-skilled jobs as much as low-skilled ones? Are we building a middle class or just perpetuating poverty? Low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs are not development; they are the status quo (or worse).

This is why impact assessments are so important. These are studies conducted long before a project gets off the ground on its environmental effects, its archaeological effects, its social effects, among others. Such assessments employ the best and brightest Grenadians: scientists who tend to leave and never come back. How many Grenadians study marine biology or ecology or botany? How many get jobs here after they graduate? Impact assessments are an entire industry that can employ more of our intellectuals and slow the ‘brain drain’. Yet, we are ignoring them in the name of speed, in the belief that the low-paying jobs at hotels are an achievement. They aren’t. But that marine biologist we ignored, that wetlands ecologist, that ornithologist, that archaeologist and other professionals would have been paid a lot more. And they wouldn’t have to leave for the UK or Canada or the USA to send money home doing the same work they could (should) be doing here.

As in the developed world, Grenada needs to do better impact assessments and we need to include archaeology in those studies. Doing these studies beforehand fixes unforeseen problems and adds integrity to projects. It gets a bunch of scientists to look at projects and point out any flaws — not to stop or slow construction, but to make it better. There are ancient skeletons here that should be exhumed and recorded first. There are wetlands that must be protected. There are endangered sea turtles nesting on some of our beaches that need sufficient buffers to survive. Otherwise, development is not constructive but becomes destructive. Whether we’re talking about forests or beaches or archaeological sites, the physical destruction of the landscape has lasting effects, even when the construction is left unfinished.

Despite laws requiring them, few government-funded projects conduct thorough impact assessments at all in Grenada, and the private/semi-private projects that have done EIAs were not required to do archaeological surveys or excavation, even when the projects are taking place above identified archaeological sites. By requiring archaeology in EIAs, government can ensure that we look at some of these time capsules before they are thrown away.

Impact assessments not only improve the project and employ Grenadian scientists, they also allow us to document things before they are destroyed; in archaeology’s case, before they are gone forever. There are no Amerindians living on Grenada’s landscape today making pottery or drawing petroglyphs; there are no enslaved Africans making improvised glass tools or stuffing sugar molds, no French or British soldiers making bone buttons or firing grapeshot. These remains are all we have left; they are a finite resource. The burials falling into the sea at Sauteurs and Molinere and True Blue are some of the few that have survived, against all odds, and yet continue to disappear before our eyes.

We are at a crossroads in Grenada. One road embraces the opportunity to improve project feasibilities, employ Grenadian scientists, and document things before they are destroyed. The other road confuses fast construction with development and leads to a cycle of continuous poverty for too many people. Let’s encourage government to make the right choice for the health of our economy, environment and heritage, ensuring we safeguard the things that make our tri-island state unique for future generations.

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