Archaeology is the discipline which studies the human past through material objects: human and animal remains, rubbish, pots, weapons, tools. It’s especially valuable when studying societies that had no writing system, the great majority in the whole sweep of human history. But it’s also used to study societies with writing, what we call “historical archaeology”, such as examining the sites of slave villages or Maroon settlements in the Caribbean.
This year marks an important anniversary in the history of archaeological research in T&T. In 1919, the Palo Seco site, located on the coast of south-western Trinidad, was declared a protected site by the colonial government, which purchased part of the area as Crown lands. It was the first time any archaeological site had been so protected here.
The government’s action was the result of work by John Bullbrook. Very few people today know his name, but he was the “father” of archaeological research in this country. Thanks to Arie Boomert, the Dutch archaeologist/historian who is the leading expert on the history of T&T’s indigenous people, we know something about Bullbrook and his work.
He was an English geologist who came to Trinidad in 1913 to work in the early oil industry, and had a keen interest in archaeology. Over the 50-plus years he lived in Trinidad (he died in 1967) he excavated many sites in both Tobago and Trinidad. Palo Seco was a shell midden site—a place where indigenous people had lived and left their rubbish. Bullbrook worked there in 1919 and persuaded the government to protect the site from further destruction; it was threatened by the quarrying of shells for road building material.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Bullbrook worked at various sites in the Erin area on Trinidad’s south coast. Then, in the 1940s and early 1950s, he collaborated with the American archaeologist Irving Rouse, from Yale University, in a major excavation project. This led to the first relative chronology (time line) and cultural classification of the peoples living in Trinidad before European contact. Bullbrook’s assistant also worked at the Lovers’ Retreat site in Tobago, and together they compiled a list of all the known sites on the island.
Bullbrook donated his entire collection of “finds” to what became the National Museum in Port of Spain, and worked as Associate Curator there in the last few years of his life. He deserves to be remembered as the pioneer of archaeological research on the nation’s indigenous peoples who lived on the two islands for thousands of years before any Europeans got here.
Sadly, in a lecture sponsored by the National Trust at the end of July, Boomert lamented that only one other archaeological site in T&T has received governmental protection since Palo Seco a century ago—Banwari Trace in south-western Trinidad, where the skeleton of “Banwari Person”, the oldest human remains so far found here, was located (it is now in the custody of the UWI, St Augustine, Zoology Museum). It was the late Peter Harris, another person originally from England who worked in the oil industry, who first excavated this site and lobbied for it to be bought by the government and given protection.
There are over 300 identified and listed archaeological sites in Trinidad and in Tobago, Boomert told his audience, and the great majority have no protection from the local or central government. These sites could easily be destroyed, and some probably already have been. Yet they are a precious but endangered part of the national heritage, and the key source of knowledge about the nation’s First Peoples, their culture and their life ways, going back to the very first human settlements here some ten thousand years ago.
—Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at The UWI, St Augustine