My Heart is In Statia: How Field Work Made Me Fall in Love with Archaeology

By Kallista Karastamatis

Not to be dramatic, but my field school on Sint Eustatius was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. My heart has always been in anthropology; forensics is where my true love lies. I had never been to a field school before, let alone a National Science Foundation-sponsored one in the Caribbean. When the departure date finally arrived, I was so excited I barely slept the night before. I knew it would be an incredible experience, but little did I know how impactful these weeks would be.

After several hours of travel, I was suddenly surrounded by these strangers, who would quickly become my close friends (almost compulsory, seeing as we spent nearly all our time together). After a nerve-wracking flight on what seemed to be the world’s tiniest plane, we landed in paradise. Somehow the second we landed, the air seemed cleaner, the water was the bluest I had ever seen, and I was simply in awe of my new surroundings. I hardly took any pictures at first, because I just wanted to soak it all in without a camera stuck in my face.

When we first arrived on the island, I was dreading being constantly filthy, stinky, and exhausted from early morning starts and working in dirt all day. However, when I returned to the States, I missed it being socially acceptable to not wash your hair for several days and using the ocean as a shower. We arrived on Statia in the dry season, so our access to running water was restricted to allotted times every day. Shockingly, this was rather easy to accept, and gave us an excuse to go to the beach every day after work. As for the early mornings, having five of your closest roommates shuffling around and competing for the world’s tiniest bathroom made waking up at 6AM easier.

The first few days were a bit of a blur; on the first day of field work, I had contracted a mystery sickness and was grievously ill. I had been nervous around Dr. Ahlman, as I am around all professors I am unfamiliar with, but that all changed quite quickly when he saw me vomiting into the brush near our site. Something about that experience makes you very comfortable around someone.

Measuring the unit elevation with Mara.

After my brief stint with the bushes, I got straight back to work. I had never conducted archaeological research before, so I was eager to learn all the methods and begin working. I learned how to set an archaeological unit, map it, and proper methods of excavation. The first levels in our sugar works units were slow going, but we quickly got into a rhythm and began excavating with ease. While I did fall into my unit several times, I also rescued several tarantulas from certain death, so I’m hoping those cancel each other out.

The team eventually split in two, with half excavating a colonial-era sugar plantation and the others rescuing an 18th century slave cemetery from erosion on an oceanside cliff. We all worked so well as a team and powered through several units at the sugar works site. Overall, we found some incredible artifacts, uncovered the remnants of a wall, and excavated several burials, all in a few brief weeks. Although I mainly focused on the plantation, I was also given the opportunity to assist with the cemetery work. I had never worked with historic human remains before and was so eager to work oceanside. Working on a beach, by the way, is not nearly as enticing as it seems; the black sand preheats like an oven and by mid-day it feels like you’re standing on a cookie sheet. The end result? Most certainly not the smell of freshly baked cookies.

The view from our oceanside “office.”

After our work in the sun, we took our artifacts and skeletal remains back to SECAR to clean them properly and begin the curation process. After we had completed our field work on the island, it was time for our data collection! I decided to conduct a comparative study of two cemeteries on the island, and examine the differential preservation of skeletal remains between the two. I had the opportunity to study not only the remains from the enslaved African burials I helped excavate, but also several sets of remains from a leper colony nearby. This was incredibly exciting for me; where else would I have the chance to analyze remains that show indications of leprosy?

Action shot of me compiling data for my research project at SECAR. Not pictured: the 10 liters of water I had sweat out by noon- No AC!

This journey has further cemented my love for what I do-  if I had been in the field for 8 hours a day, baking in the sun, with no access to a bathroom, doing anything but anthropology, I would have despised it. Instead, being in Statia with brilliant coworkers and fellow researchers is to date the happiest I have ever been. Knowing that I am in a field that allows me to have these incredible experiences makes me so grateful for the field I have chosen to dedicate my life to. Not only that, I have a newfound appreciation for archaeology that I would not have earned elsewhere.

My heart aches for Statia. While I am happy to be back in an environment where I can really delve into my research, nothing can fill the hole that the black sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and free-roaming wildlife can. That’s okay though- it gives me an excuse to go back someday!