Jamaica’s culture minister Olivia Grange said last month she wants her country’s cultural relics returned by the British Museum. They include a Bird Man made by Taino Amerindians before Columbus, and a wooden figure of the Boinayel or Rain Giver, also from Taino times.
“They are not even on display,” she says. “They are priceless, they are significant to the story of Jamaica, and they belong to the people of Jamaica.”
One precious item is still in Jamaica—a four-inch Zemi or Taino figure found a couple of months ago along with pottery and human remains in the Hellshire Hills, just west of Kingston.
On May 28, an Israeli working in Jamaica as manager of an aggregate quarry was about to blast a section of rock. He was warned by one of his workers that there was a cave right there, which might cause an uncontrolled collapse.
Tal Giller, the Israeli manager, checked with his team: “We found some bones inside of it and also some things that looked like plates and bowls,” he later told The Gleaner. They took out the finds, then set off the blast, as planned.
He said: “I just knew that was what I found ... What was important to me was to make sure that it’s not going to get damaged because this is the history of this island.” We’re lucky. Others might not have cared.
The Jamaica National Heritage Trust checked the site next day. They said it was a rock shelter burial, and identified the Zemi.
The Gleaner has called for a halt to quarrying in the Hellshire Hills. But the Trust says the rock shelter was “not significant enough … We cannot save everything”. Multiple burials, cave art, carvings and pictographs are national heritage. This one was not.
So, quarrying continues. We don’t know how much there is still to lose, or how much has already gone.
Archaeology is not just about pulling out bones and pots. It’s about interpretation, and context. The Trust is trying to make a map of Taino settlement in Jamaica, to tell us more about the relationship between early peoples and the land.
It’s not just the Hellshire Hills. The Noranda bauxite company, 51 per cent government owned, wants to mine in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. That’s an area rich in wildlife, and in the history of Jamaica’s Maroons.
And it’s not just Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago, and across the Caribbean, historic and archaeological sites are under threat.
Yes, there are two Taino figures in the British Museum. But a whole lot more are waiting to be found—or worse, crushed for aggregate.
The Boinayel was found in 1792, in a cave in the parish of Clarendon. The black tropical hardwood had been polished with river pebbles to bring its resin to the surface. Its magical tears signify rain. The British Museum’s website talks of the “ostentatious display of the sexual organs” and its “aggressive masculinity”. The Bird Man comes from the same cave, as does an impressive stand in the image of a wooden figure.
All three were exhibited in London in 1799 by one Isaac Alves Rebello. The British Museum bought them in the first half of the 20th century from the collection of an ethnographic art dealer, William Ockleford Oldham.
He specialised in Oceania, not Jamaica. The New Zealand government bought his private collection in 1948, for just 44,000 pounds.
The British Museum’s three Jamaican pieces are not on permanent display. But since 2000, they have been shown in four Japanese cities, London, Paris, Madrid, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Barcelona and Bonn. They have starred in exhibitions featuring “Amazon to Caribbean: Early Peoples of the Rainforest,” the “Caribbean Before Columbus,” and the varied influences on modern British sculpture.
Would they be better in Jamaica?
The genetic link is tenuous. Present-day Jamaicans have only a minuscule fraction of Taino DNA.
But the three carvings are striking—that’s judging by the images on the British Museum’s site. Well displayed, with informative background, they could bring the Tainos to life, inspiring Jamaicans young and old, plus tourists and visitors.
Alternatively, they’re now part of worldwide heritage. They’ve already been travelling ambassadors for Jamaica.
Taino culture was regional in scope—not island-bound. And beyond the Caribbean, Taino artwork throws light on other rain forest cultures.
If Italian art was on show only in Italy, and Japanese art only in Japan, the world would be a poorer place. There’s a mish-mash cultural cross-fertilisation that feeds into T&T’s Carnival as well as the formal art world.
And home is not always the safest place, as we know from the National Museum of Iraq, stripped and looted after the 2003 invasion.
At their best, world-class institutions like the British Museum are lending-libraries as well as cultural custodians. If well funded, Caribbean museums could be part of the network. That could mean high-end display of Caribbean work on its home patch, lending it overseas when appropriate, and borrowing from elsewhere to show new highlights and contexts.
But it won’t mean blasting it to bits in a quarrying operation.