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  • Writer's pictureE Stegmaier

St. Eustatius Airport Expansion Project: Days 15-17 (May 5-7, 2021)

An official announcement about the details of our excavation was made via a live radio broadcast on the island last night. This frees me up a bit to discuss what we've been doing for the past few weeks:

There is a hill of quality soil on the grounds of the airport here on Statia, which will eventually be used to make concrete for infrastructure here on the island. Given its location and proximity to the remains of the historic Golden Rock sugar plantation, an archaeological survey was conducted last year to determine if there are any archaeological features within that hill. During the survey, several sets of human remains were discovered in the test trenches. Given their proximity to Golden Rock, it is believed that a cemetery of enslaved individuals resides on the hill. This is where our project, GR2021 begins.

Check out the radio interview that was given last night on Statia's PJB50, which discusses the project in detail. I'm slated to give an interview next week. Those of you who know me also know that I do not do well in these types of situations :\

To date, we have excavated 12 sets of human remains. Due to the soil color (which almost exactly matches the color of the remains we're finding), the volcanic rock (which can look like human bone fragments, on occasion), and the general condition of the remains themselves, photographic images are simply too muddled to get a sense of what is happening inside each grave. This is where my job comes.

I carefully measure each feature within a given burial chamber and plot it onto graph vellum. These line drawings are, as you can imagine, quite dirty by the end of the day. So I take the field drawings back to a clean environment (my room at CNSI), and make publication-ready ink renderings of them by eliminating all of the visual noise (e.g. plant roots, igneous rocks, etc) from the image, so that all that remains in the drawings are the skeletons, coffin wood/nails if they exist, and any grave goods associated with the remains.

Sounds easy, right? It's not. It's physically demanding because some of these remains are almost six-feet deep. So try to imagine measuring something that far away without being able to get into the grave itself, in most cases. It's a lot of kneeling on gravely soil, and bending...I probably do a hundred squats per feature. On top of it, the heat and humidity are both overwhelming. Throw on top of it a constant wind blowing dirt in your eyes and sticking to the sweat on your body.

Then there's the emotional toll, which can't be discounted. I never lose sight of the fact that these remains were once actual people with a story to tell. Those stories may well be oppressive and sad, but they deserve to be told. Then there are some remains that just break my heart as a father.

I believe I may be able to show some drawings from the cemetery excavation soon, but I am awaiting instruction on that front.

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