Mon | Nov 30, 2020

Editorial | Expand Taino search at Hellshire quarry

Published:Thursday | August 8, 2019 | 12:00 AM

If they haven’t done so as yet, we expect the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) will put a halt, at least temporarily, to quarrying in that area in the Hellshire hills where pre-Columbian artefacts were discovered two and half months ago and revealed by this newspaper yesterday. The area should be archaeologically scoured to ensure that potential new finds are not destroyed during mining.

It is well documented that Jamaica’s indigenous Taino people, decimated by the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, inhabited the Hellshire region, on the island’s south coast. Their artefacts have been found, curated, and placed in museums. While it was always possible that there were more discoveries to be made, it seems unexpected that it would happen at the venue of the latest finds, where a quarry was opened last year, which suggests that the owners received the relevant regulatory permits.

However, in May, as miners prepared to blast away a piece of hillside, they discovered a rock shelter, which they feared might collapse with the explosion. The opening was explored and centuries-old bones and utensils found and removed. It is not clear what protocols exist, or if the matter is addressed in mining and quarry licences, for situations such as occurred in Hellshire. In this case, the blasting went ahead. Fortuitously, the cavern didn’t collapse.

A subsequent search and excavation by archaeologists of the heritage trust found other artefacts, including a four-inch Zemi, or a sculptured ancestral deity of the Tainos. According to Selvenious Walters, the JNHT’s technical director for archaeology, the rock shelter was a secondary burial site, meaning that the discovered remains were moved there, having been previously buried elsewhere. “… Among the artefacts there were human remains … but not complete skeletal remains,” he said. “Just body parts.”

Jamaica ought to be grateful to the miner who explored the cavern and had the presence of mind to remove the bones and pottery shards that were immediately apparent. We should be thankful, too, that, as feared might have been the case, the rock shelter didn’t collapse and the additional artefacts lost.

TAINOS ADD VALUE TO JA HISTORY

Our understanding of Tainos, even if only a small bit, has been expanded and Jamaica’s history is richer for it. Hopefully, though, this episode is not, or wasn’t, the end of the matter.

Insofar as we are aware, beyond the work done in the immediate aftermath of the discovery, the heritage trust sought neither to stop quarrying at the site nor to extend its archaeological search in the quarry area, or adjacent regions. For to our albeit unscientific mind, untrained in archaeology, it would seem that having been found in one place, more artefacts are likely to be nearby.

Indeed, the Trust has the power to declare the site to be of archaeological interest and take action it deems necessary for its preservation, including placing restrictions on the activities of those who operate in the quarry. Perhaps the Trust has concluded that it has found all that is possible at the new Hellshire site, in which event it should say so, and why.

If it is concerned about the economic burden it places on the quarry’s owners by halting their activities, the question to be asked, then, is what price is to be placed on a country’s heritage and the understanding of its history. In the case of the Tainos, and their place in Jamaica, every new discovery adds to building out what Mr Walters, the heritage trust’s archaeologist, admits is still a patchy mosaic.