Leiden University logo.

nl en

Keeping an Eye on the Volcano: Archaeology Research on Montserrat

Dr. Krysta Ryzewski visited Leiden University last week, where she gave a lecture “Survey and Landscape Archaeology on Montserrat: Recent findings from research across the Columbian divide”. After her lecture Dr. Ryzewski took some time to answer a few questions.

Dr. Ryzewski  is associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and co-director of The Survey and Landscape Archaeology on Montserrat project (SLAM) (along with Dr. John F. Cherry of Brown University). In January 2010, SLAM began to record and map the standing structures and archaeological sites within the pedestrian-accessible non-exclusion zone using traditional and innovative survey methods. Archaeologists have returned annually since to continue research and recovery.

Dr. Ryzewski, you do research in Monserrat through the SLAM project. Can you tell us about something interesting that you've recently discovered?

At Upper Blakes, which is government owned land, we found a site with Archaic-period lithics. Upper Blakes is the oldest known site on the island, and its date of 2800 BC makes it within the top five oldest sites in the entire Lesser Antilles. That’s not just exciting for the archaeology community but this discovery has resonated with the Montserratian community as well, because it is a source of  pride in the island’s deep history.

Over 700 of the lithics were found in a section of about 10 square meters, and what we found suggests that they were not just using them in the vicinity: they were probably making the tools right there. For some reason they were taking the raw materials up to Upper Blakes and converting them into tools there. The most interesting feature of that area is that you can see three sides of the island around you and other islands in the distance. It certainly had a significant vantage point, and the site’s location was probably very strategic.

You spoke about challenges in heritage management on Montserrat..

Yes, well, this site at Upper Blakes, for example, was devastated by irrigation development this past year.  Even though there were several entities on Montserrat who tried to help us protect the site from destruction, in the end, the site was lost because of construction activities that did not take account of the site’s location. This incident has, however, been an occasion for people locally to connect with the importance of cultural resource management. Hopefully the experience at Upper Blakes will inform future approaches to archaeological resources on the island.

When we are on Montserrat, we do our best to act as advocates for archaeology and cultural resource management. We visit schools, host public events, speak with the media, invite volunteers to work with us, give talks, assist the Montserrat National Trust, meet with government officials, and work with other local scientists (among other things). But we are only on-island for a short time every year, and it’s difficult to keep up this momentum when we’re not there.  It is really important to us that we can help to develop a local appreciation for archaeology year-round that will continue in our absence.

Dr. Ryzewski hosting a classroom activity with schoolchildren on Montserrat.

Of course there was also a disaster in Montserrat in 1995 when the volcano erupted. Does this environment affect your work?

The volcano began erupting in 1995 and it came as a surprise to people. In that time there were just a couple of  archaeologists who were in the midst of conducting  decades-long research on prehistoric and historic sites on Montserrat. Right before the volcano erupted in 1995 one team of archaeologists excavated a burial during a rescue excavation that was part of an airport runway expansion project . Our colleague took the remains to the U.S. for study with the permission of the Montserrat National Trust and the local government. A few months later the volcano erupted for the first time. There was this folklore on the island that, when the Amerindian remains were taken to the U.S., their removal caused the volcano to get angry. So when we started our project in 2010 there was a lot of anxiety locally: What will you do with the artefacts? The last archaeologist who was here took the artefacts and woke the volcano up.

Of course, what most people didn’t know was that the earlier artefacts were taken with proper permission for further study.  We wanted to be sure that we were very transparent about our treatment of the artefacts we recovered when we started our project. So we sat down with the Montserrat National Trust and came up with a new formal artefact management plan that. It included agreements between the National Trust that and ourselves (on behalf of our universities) that spelled out  loan and documentation policies. Also, the agreement included a commitment that we would return everything within a reasonable time frame - 1 year in our case. Now this management plan is being used with all archaeologists who are working on the island on the island, which is a very good thing!

Did you suffer any direct impact from the volcano itself?

When our project began in 2010 the volcano was very active. We dealt with a lot of complications in our daily survey work because of constant ash in the air, and, of course, the ongoing threats of major eruptions. On a day-to-day basis we had a lot of challenges with  keeping ash out of our field equipment and electronics. There were also regular interruptions to the electricity supply that were unpredictable and unannounced.  Of course, these inconveniences are extremely minor compared to the losses that residents of Montserrat were incurring at the time.

But the threat of a major eruption was always present in the early years of the project (and remains present today, to a lesser degree). I had firsthand experience with major eruptions and evacuations during my prior time on Montserrat in 2006 and 2007, so I knew how bad it could get. We had contingency plans in place for emergency evacuations, and we always carried our passports and dust masks in our survey backpacks in case an evacuation was ordered while we were out on a survey and we weren’t allowed to return to our field house. The volcanic exclusion zone was much larger in 2010 than it is today, so our survey region and methods have evolved over time as the volcano has quieted. Thankfully, the volcano has been getting quieter since 2010. So over the past few years we’ve been able to conduct our research on Montserrat in much  the same way as our colleagues who work on other islands. But we are still always keeping an eye on the volcano!

You mentioned also working on some islands beside Montserrat. Do you see potential for collaboration with NEXUS1492?

Yes, of course. The reason for my visit to Leiden was to discuss the similarities between our project and NEXUS1492. There are  definitely many ways in which potential collaborations might emerge between the two projects and/or their personnel - in the short or longer term. We are looking at things at totally different scales, but it’s really important for us on the SLAM project to collect and organise our data in a way that speaks to scholars working in other parts of the Caribbean and I know that that’s a priority of NEXUS1492 too. Our two projects also share similar priorities when it comes to disseminating our findings to broad audiences inside and outside of academia, in involving local partners in our research, and in making public outreach a priority in our work. I hope  that there will be a lot more conversations moving forward that will hopefully have a positive impact on how archaeology is practiced throughout the region.


For more information on the SLAM project, click the link below:

Survey and Landscape Archaeology on Montserrat

For more information on research undertaken by Dr. Krysta Ryzewski in Detroit, follow the links listed below:

Timejumpers: inspiring archaeologists of the future's past

Unearthing Detroit: WSU program teaches kids the skills and value of archaeology