The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 97

Issue 97

November/December 2007



Curlew care leads to lost royal residence find

Wat's Dyke dated: was it Coenwulf's dyke?

Little dig goes to big festival

Orkney finds confirm early Scottish colonisation

In Brief & Phase 2


Made in China
The exhibition that you will never forget opens in London

Viking treasure
An early inside look at the Viking hoard from Harrogate

Caribbean tragedy: under the volcano
David Miles and Julian Munby say island heritage matters on Montserrat

on the web

Recommended websites
Archaeological science, and digging up a hearth (and home)


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Dan Hull explains the CBA's pioneering initiatives in archaeological publishing


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Archaeology under the volcano

British archaeologists surveyed Montserrat just before the volcano erupted in 1995, transforming life – and burying remains under ash, lava and mud. As the island rebuilds itself, David Miles and Julian Munby ask why a historic landscape shaped by slavery should not be treated with the respect that we would demand here?.

Montserrat is a small, tear-drop shaped island in the arc of the Lesser Antilles, which runs from Granada in the south to St Kitts in the north. Like many Caribbean islands, it has a remarkable collection of prehistoric and historic sites, in particular places relating to the history of colonial Britain.

All too often these sites are neglected, overgrown, and on the more tourist-dominated islands bulldozed for golf-courses and hotel complexes. Yet at a mere 136 sq km – half the size of the Isle of Wight – Montserrat reflects the global transformations that took place from the mid 17th to the early 19th century. Now technically a dependent territory, this is one of Britain's last sherds of empire.

Poisoned by sugar

Christopher Columbus passed by, without landing, on November 11 1493, on his second trans-Atlantic voyage. The jagged volcanic mountains reminded him of the landscape behind Barcelona, so he named it after the Spanish monastery there: Santa María de Monserrate. The island's original Amerindian name – Alliouagana – may have meant "the land of thorns" or the "land of the Arawaks". Oxford Archaeology's surveys and excavations with David Watters of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh revealed many Amerindian settlements that dated back to 500BC, though none seems to have been occupied when the first Europeans arrived in 1632.

At that time Irish colonists, having served their time as indentured labourers in nearby English-run St Kitts, sought religious freedom and a plot of land, to scratch a living as small farmers of tobacco and indigo. The pace increased with the arrival of the English, with new ideas about plantation economy, what constituted a healthy civilised landscape and the wealth to be gained from sugar. Within four decades Europeans had made an infinitely greater impact on the island than the Amerindians had in 2,000 years.

Sugar cane cultivation originated in New Guinea and spread into Europe with the Arab conquests of the eighth century. Columbus carried sugar cane as he sailed by Montserrat, and the first new world sugar was shipped to Spain in 1516, already produced by enslaved Africans. The British developed this valuable trade on Barbados from 1625, and across the Caribbean culminating in Jamaica in 1655.

England became the largest importer and re-exporter of sugar and the biggest transporter of enslaved human beings from west Africa. The trade fuelled the expansion of the British fleet and cities like London, Bristol and Liverpool, and of manufacturing industries, insurance and banking, universities and grand town and country houses. By 1775 sugar made up one fifth of British imports. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776): "...the profits of a sugarplantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America".

These processes, which helped to create the modern world, are reflected in tiny Montserrat. A map of 1673 shows fields and scattered settlements up to a height of about 450m. Forests had been felled as a cash crop and land enclosed on all but the highest peaks. This was no longer a tropical Eden: it was property.

The three principal settlements are on the more accessible sheltered southwest coast. Plymouth Towne has about 21 buildings, a customs house and the church of St Anthonie (built in 1636). About a kilometre to the south-east is Kinsale and 3km to the north the settlement of Stapletown, guarded by its old fort. These three places are also mentioned in a law of 1670 specifying sites for trade. A 1677 census indicates that this relatively inhospitable part of the island was also the most populous and the most Irish, with the smallest agricultural plots and the fewest black slaves. Place-names like Kinsale, Galway's and St Patrick's reflect their origins as Irish settlements.

In the early days the Irish outnumbered the English on Montserrat by about six to one. The two communities constantly quarrelled, with the Catholic Irish seeking French support. On neighbouring islands under British control the indigenous Indian population was systematically and deliberately exterminated. This left the English planters with a labour shortage, a need that was satisfied by transporting black Africans. In 1672 whites (1,175) outnumbered blacks (523) on Montserrat. By 1729 the balance had changed with 1,050 whites and 5,858 blacks. In 1774 the black population peaked at 10,000. One of them was Olaudah Equiano who, through his own remarkable efforts, bought his freedom in July 1766 and played an important role in the campaign in Britain to abolish the slave trade.

While the Spanish developed paternalistic, seigniorial estates the English planters were capitalist entrepreneurs. In a single generation they turned Caribbean islands into amazingly effective sugar production machines, while the owner-planters mostly fled to consume their wealth elsewhere. They left inhuman slave colonies and serious environmental problems.

Because of the rugged topography Montserrat's plantations were relatively small, though even holdings of fewer than 20ha had the necessary collection of mills, boiling houses and other sugar and rum processing buildings. Fields increased in size, and sugar cane 3m high blanketed substantial areas. Drastic forest clearances resulted in erosion, dried-up streams, polluted bays and decimated mangrove swamps, flash-floods, evaporation and desiccated soils. Imported aliens – donkeys, goats, rats – assisted the process. Expensive attempts were made to limit the damage: slaves were ordered to carry soil back up the steep slopes to eroded plots; a law of 1702 required vegetation to be planted along the steep gullies (know as ghauts) for shade. Plantation sites such as Galway's even shifted location. For two centuries the plantation system was a fabulous generator of wealth. And an environmental, social and humanitarian disaster.

Apocalyptic landscape

Our ground survey in 1995 was much helped by the remarkable number of historical records, both on Montserrat and in the National Archives in London. We focussed on the Trants estate, the area proposed for the expansion of wh Bramble Airport. In order to assess its relative importance, we also considered some 50 plantation sites across the island.

A 1993 historic buildings report had examined the great houses, so we emphasised industrial remains. Montserrat's volcanic rock is a good building stone and can be sawn into regular ashlar shapes, so many of the plantation structures are substantial and well-built. The plantation sites' most characteristic feature is the windmill for crushing sugar cane. Galway's was the best known one on Montserrat, spectacularly sited on the south-western slope looking out to sea. There Lydia Pulsifer and "Mac" Godwin had carried out a detailed study and, with the National Trust, opened the site to the public. Galway's even featured prominently in the Smithsonian Institutions radical Columbus Quincentenary exhibition, Seeds of Change.

Montserrat's 1729 census listed 23 windmills, 52 cattlemills and three watermills. In 1995 a substantial number of those windmills still survived, mostly belonging to what had been the larger plantations. Cattlemills predominated on the smaller landholdings. By 1899 12 estates out of 25 had steam power. We observed the evidence for this on 10 sites, four of which still had chimneys and machinery from Glasgow, Derby or Manchester. There is something inevitably surreal about hacking through rain forest vegetation, thorn scrub and manchineel, to find boilers and a steam engine embossed Crossley Bros of Manchester – an Ozymandian relic of industrial power.

Recently Montserrat sold itself as a kind of tropical Isle of Man, where people went to church and did not lock their doors; a 1950s time-warp appealing to the "snowbirds", escapees from harsh us and Canadian winters migrating to their bougainvillea- and hibiscus-covered villas. When we arrived at the airport in 1994 to carry out the environmental assessment, we were confronted by the tourist slogan, "The West Indies as it used to be".

The following year we had just completed a survey of the archaeological and industrial remains, when on July 18 the Soufrière Hills volcano started to erupt. The steam and ash of that event were followed by much worse in 1997. One of us (Miles) recently returned. What has been the impact of the volcanic activity?

A 20 minute flight from Antigua took us over the island. The effect was shocking. Areas which I remembered as emerald green rain forest and the populated coastal strip were blasted and ash-covered. Great fans of pyroclastic flow extended into the sea.

We landed on a new runway carved out of the hills at Gerolds in the north. In 1995 few people occupied this desiccated area. Most of Montserrat's 11,500 population lived in the lusher zone around the capital Plymouth. About 7,000 have since left, mainly for the UK. Now some 5,000 people have to be accommodated in the northern area, beyond the exclusion zone which occupies two thirds of the island where most of the former settlements lie destroyed or evacuated. Around Little Bay a new community is emerging, with temporary wooden shacks and grander buildings such as the new cultural centre and, inevitably, a cricket pitch.

Vicky Hards, director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, talked about the volcano. Its principal victim, the town of Plymouth is just visible in the distance below us: a grey field with palls of ash swirling in the wind.

"Whatever you do", Hards said, "don't compare Plymouth to Pompeii. Pompeii was covered, and from an archaeological point of view protected, by a massive volcanic eruption. Montserrat is different. This volcano is one of the 20% or so that start gently and get worse. Most volcanoes begin violently and calm down over two or three years. Not the Soufrière Hills – they have been sending out pyroclastic flows and lahars [flows of lava and mud] for 12 years."

The 1995 eruption started with ash falls which blacked out the sky: the weight was enough to collapse some roofs in Plymouth. People left the town. For a couple of years not a lot happened, but within the crater the peak was growing. Basaltic lava is viscous and flows downhill – most obviously in the Hawaiian volcanoes. Andesitic volcanoes like the Soufrière Hills build up solid, rocky, unstable domes.

In 1997 the new dome overtopped the old crater walls. Parts of it collapsed generating deadly hot pyroclastic flows that at first followed the mountainside ghauts, particularly down the Tar river towards the airport. As these filled, the slopes became smoother and the flows faster. Most of the southern area of Montserrat, where the risk of flows was greatest, had been evacuated, but one particularly deadly flow travelled northwards at about 90km per hour. It killed 20 people. On December 26 a huge explosion blew out the island's south-western slopes. The Galway's archaeological site disappeared along with the village of St Patrick's, an unusual case of total destruction of the historic plantations.

The mills at Paradise and Farrell's emerge like determined rocky fists in an apocalyptic landscape. Unfortunately there are other destructive forces: lahars, mudflows caused by heavy rainfall which cascade down the mountain sides. Plymouth has been consistently hit. The lahars carry rocks like battering rams which smash their way through the pathetic, flayed remains of this once lively little town. Where the lahars run fast there are no blanketed remains for archaeologists. Yet the volcano can be surprising in its effects. In some areas pyroclastic flows have passed through like a searing wind, slicing off the upper storey of a building while below the table still sits in the kitchen, set for tea with plates and cups intact, all coddled in thick, fine ash.

Tappy Syers from the mvo drove us across the lunar landscape which now covers the airport and the area we excavated in 1995. He repeatedly jumped out of our vehicle to test the solidity of the ground. A vast pyroclastic ramp littered with pumice runs directly up into the belly of the volcano. The heat had set the airport buildings on fire and the terminal now stands out as stumpy concrete blocks. A silent red telephone sits on a windowsill a couple of yards from a teel safe that looks like it has been heated in a furnace.

I want to know what happened to the Trants estate. Clearly the Trants Amerindian site is now buried a metre or so beneath the flow. From the ruined observation tower we spot the sugarmill's stone chimney emerging from a dense stand of acacia and manchineel. In the suffocating heat and dust we try to reach it by crawling along the goat tracks and tunnels in the scrub. Eventually the thorns, toxic vegetation and thick ash are too much for us. Remarkably though it appears that the pyroclastic flows have divided around the Trants buildings, an exceptional variety of mills, stores, houses and other industrial structures.

The volcano has not finished though. The dome is growing ominously – 600m in the past 10 months, now overtopping Chance's Peak, at 915m previously the island's highest point. Two hundred million tons of material could topple. If a fraction fell into the Belham valley it would overwhelm what was previously the most desirable real estate in Montserrat.

Mere humans can do nothing beyond monitoring the beast and trying to keep out of its erratic path. However, thanks to the mvo the Soufrière Hills volcano is the most observed in the world, and the volcanologists have tackled the delicate balancing act of combining science, diplomacy, public education and safety.

The island's archaeology and history have fared less well. Inevitably many sites and buildings have been destroyed or buried. In the north the new town at Little Bay is being constructed on one of the few remaining Amerindian settlements and an important plantation site. The stone ruins of the plantation houses have been fenced off and handed over to the Montserrat National Trust – an organisation with much enthusiasm and little money. The developers and the British authorities have simply passed the buck.

Outside the protective fence lie the slave village and probably cemetery. These are to be built on. The British government is spending considerable sums of money on Montserrat infrastructure. In the original emergency, people's immediate needs were understandably the primary concern. For the future Montserratians need a viable, sustainable economy. And that means taking care of the environment including its historical elements. Montserrat could be a showcase of sustainable development and reconstruction.

In Britain 2007 has seen an outpouring of interest during the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade in the British empire. But in Montserrat, little is being done by the British authorities, led by the Department for International Development, to protect and promote the actual evidence of that phase of our history. In Britain archaeological evaluation, protection and mitigation would be routinely undertaken where there is major development. Why is Montserrat's fragile history a matter for careless destruction? Volcanoes do not care. We should.

David Miles is chief archaeological advisor at English Heritage and one time director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit (now Oxford Archaeology). Julian Munby is head of buildings archaeology at Oxford Archaeology.

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