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Community based archaeology on the island of Antigua - an interview with Dr. Reg Murphy

On the occasion of the PhD defence of Cameron Gill, dr. Reg Murphy visited Leiden all the way from Antigua, to attend this defence, and to give a presentation at the symposium organised for dr. Gill. During his stay he found some time to participate in an interview with RMA-student Sven Ransijn. During our conversation we discussed his research, the importance of and his experience with community based archaeology in a caribbean context, especially the island of Antigua, and his future ambitions.

Dr. Reg Murphy

Name: dr. Arthur Reginald (Reg) Murphy

Nationality: Antiguan

Occupation:  Archaeologist and specialist in heritage, site management and restoration of historical sites..

Ancillary activities:Director of Heritage Resources for the National Parks Antigua, Secretary general of the national commission of Unesco, former director on the board of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology, Chairman of the Betty’s Hope Project, director of the Museum of Antigua, and director of the Field Research Center.








In the presentation, you were talking about updating a national inventory of archaeological sites on the island of Antigua, is that correct?

Yes, there was an inventory done and completed on the island in the late 1970s. However, since then there has been a lot of development, so we don’t know how many sites have been lost due to either construction or sea level rise. For instance, where I dug, for my master’s and doctorate degree in the early 1990s, some sites have been completely submerged under water or eroded away. So, we have to make a new inventory to see what is left, and then do predictive models to see what can be expected next to cope with, if we can, in order to develop a plan to protect these coastal sites.

Another example and one of our world heritage sites, featuring a former naval British dock yard is now only about 50 cm above sea level. What is going to happen if that eventually goes? It is one of our biggest attractions. Beyond archaeology, most of our other important infrastructure, like the port harbour and the road systems are all coastal, so we look at the bigger picture now to come up with policies to cope with the rising sea level.

During your presentation, you discussed the involvement of local communities in your research, could you please elaborate on how you include these communities in your research and how your research could be beneficial for them?

The local community is your best first line of information. They know what is tradition, when the sea normally comes up with high tide and what is normal and is not normal. They know where the reefs and fish are because they depend on the ocean for making a living, so they know what is average and normal. When something changes, they will notice it first, making it possible to monitor these changes together. Apart from being our best informants, we also establish our planning and policies together. So, we work with them, get them involved, develop the planning, project set-up and implementation together, and they provide us feedback information over time. In that way you create continuity, since the kids will learn from their parents and they will pass on the information to the next generation, creating an efficient process for doing this project keeping in mind a long-term plan.

So practically, how would you set up and carry out something like this?

We have done another similar project, since this one is yet to be started. So what we do is we take a motivated approach, we develop community groups, and then we actually go into the communities get in touch and talk with them to build up a confidential relationship. We continue to keep working with them in other projects as well, so you really build up confidence and trust. There are different government agencies that are involved in that, like communication specialists and a social recruitment administration. They have regular meetings, or go for instance to a couple of churches that are involved in cultural heritage protection and documentation. But we also give presentations ourselves or do activities in their areas. Besides, we sister with other projects to strengthen the relationship with the involved communities. We also reach out to the community on tv or radio, all sorts of things, really. Essentially it is a long-term process because it takes time to build up a relationship and trust. They need to know your face and know that they can trust you so that they know you are not just taking the data away for your own purposes.

Has the view on archaeology and heritage of the local communities changed throughout the years, since they became more involved in your research?

Not per se towards archaeology, but I think their attitude towards saving cultural heritage sites has changed and is currently changing, as we are doing this now for 30 years. Now the preservation of heritage sites like plantations, which are not the most favourite since they are symbols of oppression, has become accepted. There is a complete change in attitude from, oh let’s burn it all down because it is a symbol of oppression, to the acceptance that these sites are special too and beautiful in their own way. They were built by skilled craftsman that put effort to make things look beautiful, even they were in a situation they could not escape (slavery). These are their ways of escaping, by doing really good quality work. Telling that side of the story to, for instance, wonder, why was this wall was so beautifully crafted with a perfect joint, stresses the agency and skill of the enslaved people and our ancestors. So, by generating the idea that these are the stories of our ancestors, who left this for us as a legacy, as in they are talking to you from these stones, and telling you that you have to appreciate it, not to destroy it. A symbol of oppression yes, but that was forced onto them, this is the result of their work.  Try to look at it from the other side, from their viewpoint in order to understand agency, skills and trajectories of our ancestors.

These colonial sites start to become less perceived as only places that attract lots of tourists, and tourists are important in terms of economic benefits. Because, to organise all these educational activities, you also need an economic element built in, to cover the costs. Now, the local community itself is also responding to the needs of tourists, and locals as well come there to participate in touristic activities, since they want to know what happened there. It is also not just all negative. Through this, people develop and feel a sense of ownership of this part of history as well. As a result, they come up with initiatives such as realising hiking trails, displaying historical photographs in their villages, or becoming active in restoration projects of local wells or other forms of architecture. A big change compared to 30 years ago.

Through tourists’ activities that bring in money, people start feeling to have more ownership over their heritage? Is that what you are saying?

Definitely, there is a stronger feeling of ownership, a stronger feeling that people can make a living from this, a stronger feeling of belonging in the sense of ancestry and there is a sense of maintaining heritage too among our communities. Not everyone is in, but this attitude is changing really fast now. Again, regarding the plantations, yes, they are a symbol of oppression and many people died there, but these people were not passive. They were skilled experienced craftsmen that left behind a legacy. By highlighting this part of the interpretation, people start to feel more connected to their ancestors and consider this also a history of which we can learn, since their great-great-great-ancestors, indeed had all these skills to construct these plantations and other types of infrastructure, like water catchments and wells.

In your presentation, you discuss the archaeology of a former plantation. I imagine this part of Antigua’s history is very sensitive. How do you deal with this sensitivity as archaeologist and balance between academic, political and local interests/opinions?

In cases of sensitive excavation locations, we are not just going there and dig up this site. We first have an open and frank discussion on tv and radio about our plans long before we start, to inform everyone. So, it will not be like a load of foreign young students and scholars who come in and start excavating sensitive locations. We first start with sensitising the people, to explain what it is about, what we will be doing, and why you want to do this excavation. For instance, to explain that we do not know anything about the lives of these people and now we have all these modern techniques, like forensics, to study what was left by them to understand more about their daily lives. We explain that this process will be done step by step and in collaboration with the community. In addition, the results should be communicated and nothing will or should be hidden from anyone involved. Therefore, we give presentations. It is also important to stay respectful and open to views about the interpretation of the site, which are different than the archaeological or scientific ones. When you keep them involved at all times and show what they can expect from you and what archaeology can bring in for them, they also start to become more interested in archaeology, making them wonder what could be hidden in their own backyard. They then also start to ask for your help and advice.  Within these projects it is important to collaborate with the community and to involve respectful members of the community who can communicate between us, the community and the general public. Community-based archaeology really has to be done with a within-coming-up approach instead of a top down.

In our seminar we discussed tensions that occur between decolonising practises and western scientific methodologies. What is your view on this?

Euhm, I never really experienced this or any tensions. Yes, sometimes there are some different interests of groups, but we don’t have many conflicts between the scientific and local communities. When we start, we do not want anyone to think that the researchers own the site. This is not your property. From the beginning, you come through the locals, you make clear what you want to do and how you want to do it, why you want to do it and how your project will impact the site and the local community. For instance what are the potentials like tourism for the community. As researcher, you are always working together and publishing together with all the stakeholders involved, so everyone’s name is on the paper and gets credits. This reduces the tension between the key players. Myself, as archaeologist, I try to function as a kind of buffer between the scientific and local community and I keep in touch with the key players from both communities throughout the process, ensuring that the right information is passed through. Thus, in short, keep communicating, do things together and share data.

To give an example, we provided and took care of a graveyard on a property where somebody wanted to construct a new part of his house. He agreed to that because it was too expensive to deal with this himself as a result of all the legislation in place. Throughout this project, I was always present on the site to provide answers to people that had any questions about our project. Collaboration and accessibility is key in order to build up trust with the community and to know what you can expect from each other. 

What are your future ambitions in terms of research?

We are now publishing a book on Betty’s Hope, an 11-year program that we finished. Then we look for new partners to continue working there to establish the village of enslaved people in phase two. On top of that we have a site near Indian Creek with an occupation throughout all periods from the Archaic to the European conquest. We will look at why people were continuously living at this spot and what the impacts of climate change are on the archaeological record, because in nearby areas, it is not possible to live anymore due to the rising sea level. Therefore, we want to do some core sampling in mangroves nearby to see the impact of climate on this site. In this region, we also want to re-excavate some of the sites that were excavated in the 1970s, to get a fresh look on the ceramic chronology and dates too. However, we need some new partnerships to do that. We want to combine this with carrying out new surveys in the nearby area, to look for sites that need to be registered, also in the interest of cultural heritage protection, because there is a lot of economic development and new constructions going on in this region. We want to look at how people managed at these sites, which are located quite inland without fresh water sources. Did they construct small dams?  Generally, we really would like to focus on entire cultural landscapes, because apart from the sites there are megaliths or stone constructions in the sea of which we think that they are corals, constructed to keep fish and turtles alive. So, this will be my focus for the next 2 to 3 years. 

Thank you very much for your time!

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