The Pitch Lake 'finds'
Two views of a cranium encased in pitch, recovered from the lake in the 1950s.
Courtesy of National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago.
"Numerous pieces of wood which, being involved in the pitch, are constantly coming to the surface… Whence do they come? Have they been blown on to the lake, or left behind by man?"
Charles Kingsley, 1871, 'At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies'
There is a long history of artefacts as well as human skeletal remains and bones of extinct animals (reportedly including mastadons), being found during commercial dredging at the lake, which intensified after 1850.
An unknown number of such finds likely entered private collections, but some eventually made their way into museum collections – for example, the donation of three wood carvings (a mortar, seat and shallow bowl) to Trinidad’s Victoria Institute (now National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago) in the early 1930s.
Three views of a paddle recovered from the lake in 1971. Courtesy of Peter Harris Collection, Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust.
Two further finds – a large zoomorphic bench and paddle – were made between 1940 and 1950, and donated to the Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, USA in 1952. These were loaned to the Victoria Institute for a dedicated display on the Institute’s Pitch Lake collections, which also came to include a human cranium encased in pitch.
In 1965 two weaving sticks were recovered from the north side of the lake, and a paddle was found in the same area in 1971: all three artefacts were donated to the Trinidad and Tobago Historical Society (South section), now held at Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust as part of the Peter Harris collection. Two further finds of another paddle and a small bowl were made in the 1980s, and are now housed in the collections of the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago.
For the most part, these artefacts give the impression of domestic, functional objects that may have been accidentally lost from ancient settlements around the lake. Alternatively, given the presence of seats (which in the wider Caribbean were prestigious objects used by chiefs and other important individuals), they may have been ceremonially deposited. Indeed, given the presence of skeletal remains, some researchers have suggested that they were burial offerings that accompanied the dead. But due to the circulation of the pitch, any association between them has, unfortunately, been lost.