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Beads, pendants, and a lot of grinding: experimental archaeology at El Flaco

Last summer we performed a lot of experimental archaeology in El Flaco. Why? Well, you may have heard that many ornaments are being found at the site. The goal of the experiments was to shed light on the techniques and toolkits used in their production. In this post, I explain a bit about my PhD research and how the experiments have an important role in it.

Beads and Pendants

Archaeological beads and pendants give us an image of how the pre-Colonial indigenous communities of the Antilles may have adorned themselves. From simple perforated discs to complex zoomorphic and anthropomorphic pendants, these artefacts are found throughout the Caribbean. As archaeological research is increasingly demonstrating, raw materials and ornaments were integrated in small and large-scale exchange networks between different islands and between the islands and the surrounding mainland. This is to say that ornaments had a role not only in making people’s bodies beautiful and appropriate according to social conventions, but also in mediating relations between different communities.

– But what about the other stages in the biographies of ornaments?– How were they produced? Was there craft specialization?

– Were there local traditions in their manufacture?

– Can we find evidence of whether they were actually strung?

– Were they really used to decorate the bodies of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean? 

Many of these questions can be answered through a systematic observation of ornaments under the microscope. However, for the analysis to be successful, it is necessary to create a reference collection. In other words, we must replicate the traces seen under the microscope, in order to be sure of how they were created in the past.


With this in mind, an experimental program was conducted this summer at Loma de Guayacanes in the northwest of the Dominican Republic. Together with the students that were participating in the excavation of the site of El Flaco, I started a series of experiments that will help me interpret the microscopic traces observed on the ornaments from El Flaco and other sites in the Caribbean. The main focus was on production technologies, especially grinding and polishing. In one of the first days, local raw materials were collected to be used as grinding platforms and bead blanks. Calcite and diorite were the main lithic materials used in the production of beads at El Flaco. For this reason, they were given preference during the experiments.

The experiments were clinical, i.e. isolated techniques were reproduced so that the difference in skill levels between the individuals conducting the experiment would have a comparatively low impact on the development of wear traces. A variety of “formulas” was tested, involving different stones, sand, and water. Sequential experiments were carried out and recordings were made at controlled time intervals: forms were filled with descriptions, photos were taken, and casts were made. Some experiments were also conducted with amethyst, in order to build a reference collection for the study of Early Ceramic Age beads from the Lesser Antilles. While calcite proved to be quite easily worked, diorite and amethyst posed a challenge for us as they are more difficult to grind into shape, saw, and drill.

The working of hard lithic materials without power or metal tools highlights the great skill possessed by the indigenous peoples that lived in the islands. Experiments may seem quite time-consuming and sometimes tedious, as we have to do a same gesture during a continuous period of time and a lot of administration is required. Nevertheless, they have the potential of opening new windows for engaging with the past: not only we learn more about the ways ornaments were produced, but we also experience some of the tasks that were carried out and how simple things that we disregard in our daily lives, such as beads, can require much more dedication and fore-planning. In the future, we will resume the experiments and hopefully be able to involve more people, incorporating experimental archaeology as an outreach activity.

By Catarina Guzzo Falci

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