The Past is a Present: My Archaeological Experience on Statia

By Reece Black

I have always thought of myself as a prehistoric archaeologist; I thought historical archaeology was something that held little interest to me. Throughout this summer I have started to rethink my future in the field of archaeology. This summer I was blessed to participate in archaeological research funded by the National Science Foundation through their Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site on the small Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, also called Statia. Nine other undergrads and I spent about a month on the island doing excavations at a historic cemetery and sugar plantation. As part of the archaeology team I focused on the plantation and the sugar works area.

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Arriving at the Statian airport

Our first full day spend on the island was one of wonder and amazement. We toured Oranjestad, St. Eustatius’ only town: visiting the fort, numerous historic structures, and the island museum. I took in the scenic views; as I listened to the island’s history I was in disbelief of where I was. Statia is an island lost in time. Many 18th and 19th century buildings are still being used and the ones not in use are a major component of the landscape. The next day was our first day in the field. I have experience in a lab, but I was ready to finally dig in the dirt. We took a short tour of the property and then began laying our grids in and stringing up our excavation units. I was eager to get to work so I volunteered to be part of the team in Unit 1. It was a day spent getting dirty, learning the basics, and living the dream.

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Artifacts were scattered all over the property we worked on

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Josh and I working on unit 1

The rest of the excavations built upon those basics and helped shape us into bona fide students of archaeology. This trip helped bring what I have learned in the classroom into the real world. Every day I grew and added more to my arsenal of knowledge. The Statian sun is hot and the humidity is constant, but the archaeology team was lucky to be excavating under a giant tamarind tree for most of our work. On the days I was working at the upper boiling house or doing geophysical survey in the fields adjacent to the sugar works, I truly missed the shade and comfort of that tamarind tree. We excavated many artifacts and found the location of walls that had long been buried. Uncovering the past happened every day and it was truly amazing.

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Striking my best “archaeologist” pose

Part of the REU program was to develop a personal research project. My project is focused on documenting the sugar works at the plantation that we investigated. I chose to use photogrammetry, which is using a series of photos to create a 3D model to incorporate technology into archaeological research. I am going to use the model to identify aspects of our site and compare it with other plantations on the island and in the Caribbean.

During my time on the Statia I have grown close to those that I shared the tight quarters of the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute with. I made lifelong friends and colleagues that have truly made an impact on the future of Anthropology. The stories shared and the knowledge passed around will be with me for the rest of my life. I am grateful to have been a part of this research and know that the second half of this project in Texas will be just as rewarding as the first.

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Exploring the island with newfound friends


We miss you Presidente. You will always be our island cat.

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Presidente, the island cat