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Science with the Community - an interview with Dr. Jay Haviser

A symposium revolving around historical archaeology in the Lesser Antilles was organised in light of the PhD defense of Cameron Gill (Saint-Kitts). One of the speakers at the symposium was Dr. Jay B. Haviser, island archaeologist of Sint-Maarten and co-supervisor of Cameron Gill. He agreed to sit down with RMA student Kwinten Van Dessel to shine a light upon his remarkable presentation which focused on the critical role of balancing the aims of scientific research with community engagement.

Dr. Jay Haviser (Photo: https://eurotast.eu/staff/jay-haviser/)

Name: Dr. Jay B. Haviser

Dual nationality: Netherlands/American

Occupation: Island Archaeologist Sint Maarten

PhD: Amerindian Cultural Geography on Curacao. Leiden University, 1987

Founder of:  Saba Archaeological Center (SABARC), Sint Maarten Archaeological Center (SIMARC) and Bonaire Archaeological Institute (BONAI)

Extra: President of the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology (IACA)




“These ruins, this heritage tree, are a metaphor of colonial system contexts, with the integrated transformational impacts of both the man-made and natural worlds, each surviving through the acts of man and nature. As the sands of the colonial system fall away , the surviving cultural systems struggle to hold on and strive to grow stronger …”

Ruins in the historic port town of Sandy Point, Saint Kitts (Cameron Gill 2020, 166; obtained through Dr. Jay B. Haviser)

The quote above offers us a glimpse into your intriguing, almost philosophical presentation. In fact your presentation was actually some kind of oration or recitation revolving around the picture above taken from Cameron Gill’s dissertation. What were you aiming to reach with it?

What I was aiming for with this kind of presentation was to inspire people to think about more philosophical issues on a higher level, to let them reflect on things such as social relations and empathy in a cognitive way. My presentation was a real intentional act to tease people to see beyond the image, beyond the tree, the collapsing ruins and the eroding soils. I wanted them to see it as a metaphor for the collapsing of the colonial systems, while the post-colonial systems are clinging on to some aspects but are also transforming, becoming themselves. What fascinates me as a writer and a thinker is applying a broader perspective of interpretation and making people think in another way. The last ten years I have focussed particularly on community engagement, I started the three foundations (SIMARC, SABARC and BONAI, Ed.), because already early on I realised I need to involve and engage the community to be effective. I believe that all of this makes it even more relevant for me to get people to look at these things through another lens.

Can you explain what it is these foundations do? Do you see a shift in the appreciation of people towards their heritage due to these foundations?

Oh yes, there are quite a lot of differences noticeable since the foundations started. These foundations focus on local youth from fourteen to eighteen year old. We take those kids to go and map sites, document archaeological finds and do certain projects. The important thing is that when these kids go home they will tell their family and their friends what they have been doing and it gets into the community a lot more profoundly than through a lecture of some sort that I would give. This way the ideas can seep in through these kids and on the other side of that coin is the fact that we need more Antilleans with specialized skills. The kids in this programme are there because they are interested in science and more than fifty percent of them actually become scientists of some sort. They may be engineers or biologists if not archaeologists, but what matters is that they went into the sciences, so for me that is all good. The bigger understanding is that as they grow up and become leaders in their community, which they are inevitably going to be unless they do not come back at all, they carry with them that passion for heritage and that value for its role in society. For me that awareness is the most important thing I am trying to give to these kids through these programmes.

In your presentation you talked about the collapse of the colonial system. You work on different islands in what was formerly known as the Dutch Antilles and recently finished a project on Bonaire that was a collaboration between BONAI and the Netherlands. How did this collaboration work?

This big Bonaire project drew a lot of attention. We need to find more effective and sustainable models for functional cooperation between the Netherlands and the Antilles. We are having serious problems about communicating and working together which we need to sort out. I believe that the model which we created in this project which we carried out together with Archol (Archaeological Research Leiden, Ed.) has a lot of potential to overcome some of these problems. We currently do not have the expertise on the islands to do large scale archaeological projects, so we need to bring in teams of experts and of course we do not have much money for this. For this project on Bonaire the Netherlands paid for the team of archaeologists from Archol, while the local government of Bonaire paid me to supervise them.

This way the responsibility stays in their hands?

It does, it gives a sense of dignity, of respect and of authority to the local government, but in cooperation with the experts from Holland. It is not like we are saying “you guys can come in and do whatever you want”. No, we have our supervisor who will watch over it to speak for us and make sure our goals and intentions are safeguarded. Along the way one of my most important tasks was communicating with the people through Public Days for example, so they would know what exactly was going on. The model has been very successful in this project and I am looking to do another one like this on Sint Maarten. This feeling of ownership and dignity is very important for the local governments and people, so they do not have the feeling as if they are being treated as a child.

You are also president of IACA, the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology, the most important organization for archaeological research in the Caribbean.

Yes I am. I am doing my final term now which will end next year at our conference in Matanzas, Cuba. By then I will have been president for fourteen years. I am very proud of having been the president of IACA for such a long time and I hope I have steered us in the right direction for many projects and in the many ways that we can help, however there is certainly a lot more that needs to be done. It is not only an honour, it is also a lot of hard work and responsibility. Take this conference in Cuba for example. This is where geopolitics, something I was also talking about during my presentation, come into play as the US has rolled back a lot of the visa exemptions that were reinstated in the last years, making it harder for Americans going to Cuba. Americans make up about fifty percent of our conference, so this can and probably will have a major influence on it. It is my position however that this is a Caribbean conference and we cannot be dictated by US politics. If we have a smaller conference with less Americans present, so be it. I know some people are not going to like this, but I think this is where we have to draw the line.

From what you have said today in this interview and from your presentation it is clear you attach a lot of importance to the balance between archaeological research and community engagement. What is the role of IACA in maintaining or looking for the right balance?

I see IACA as a critical institution because all of the countries in the region are represented. Not only for the educational awareness of the importance of scientific research and community engagement, but IACA also offers cross-cultural examples of models providing approaches to problems which have been proven to be effective in another area. For the last five conferences we also have had community engagement as an entire separate session. This is also an evolution of archaeology itself as it is becoming more human-connected. Archaeology has always been at the crossroads between hard and human sciences giving us a rather grey reputation of what we do. I believe we are now realizing that we cannot try to only be part of the hard sciences, it has to be integrated and it has to be both. If we do not make archaeology relevant to the very people we are studying, we will not be invited to study them anymore and archaeology itself will break up. Unless people see the relevance there will not be funding, engagement or interest and if that is the case we as a profession will decline and that is why this is so important.

Talking about relevancy, let us go on to our final topic: climate and climate change. Last summer you gave a presentation at the IACA conference in Barbados on the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island of Sint Maarten. Disastrous events such as these together with sea level rise and erosion threaten a lot of heritage sites in the Caribbean. Is this something people in the Caribbean are aware about? And how about climate change in general?

They have very little awareness, but that is not just the island cultures. Humans tend to not deal with the problem unless it is in their face. Right now I do not see the politicians considering it as a significant factor for them, they are still allowing houses to be built in really low areas. On most of the islands the water electric plant is right next to the sea because they use it as a cooler and for reverse osmosis. Where are our electric plants going to go when the sea level rises? It is not only the climate that will change, everything will change and it is such a big issue that politicians are so afraid of even touching it at all. There is a certain awareness among the population about climate change, but in terms of actually doing something about it nothing happens. It is already taking over ten years of debate to just ban simple plastic bags.

I am particularly concerned about  the repercussions of sea level rise, because it is going to cause massive displacements of people and it could be happening quite quickly too. The infrastructures in the still inhabitable regions will become overloaded with people which will cause social problems. I believe we are headed for some difficult times, but there is still hope. Most people think that heritage will get more and more lost because of sites getting lost and a lack of importance from the people. However, I think there is an alternative possibility where heritage in a localised context like the islands becomes something symbolic to cling to, a thread that takes us back to better times when our world completely changes. The aspects of heritage that might become such a symbolic thread, a thing to hold on to for the people, are possibly not what we archaeologists deem important. That is why it is so important that we incorporate the goals of the community in our scientific research.

Thank you very much for your time and the interesting talk!

Through his work and presentation Dr. Jay B. Haviser tries to make people think about archaeology on a more philosophical level and to bring scientific research and community engagement closer together. In doing so archaeology becomes more relevant to the people, which is in the end what we archaeologists (should) all strive for. One of the things we should definitely keep in mind is his message of hope regarding the possible role of heritage as something people can hold on to in difficult times. 

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