Dating the sites

Plot of mean ceramic dates (MCD) against CA dimension-1 scores for New River STPs. The dots represent individual shovel-test-pits and allow us to isolate the temporal differences between the two villages

Preliminary research has focused on dating the villages. We have used a variety of statistical methods to accurately pinpoint the beginning and ending dates of each settlement and chart change in the intensity and location of occupation within settlements over time. With dates in hand, we then chart how the use and discard of Afro-Caribbean wares changed over the course of the village occupations. For more detailed information on the statistical methods used here, please see the DAACS website.

The mean ceramic dates from the STPs indicate that the New River I village was occupied from about 1750 until 1780. The occupation span for New River II runs from about 1800 to 1830. This implies that the site was abandoned at emancipation. The gap between these two spans is small, and may be the expected outcome of the time-averaged character of the assemblages. Clarification of this point requires larger samples from New River II. We tentatively conclude that New River II was occupied when New River I was abandoned and that there was a single massive shift of slave housing from one site to the other.

What caused this shift? We are currently exploring several hypotheses. The first is that the change was implemented by New River's owners as part of a larger strategy to increase the efficiency and scale of sugar production. Archaeology shows the terraces that traverse the old village site post-date the slave occupation. This implies the area was put into cultivation after it was abandoned. The location of these new sugar fields adjacent to the mill and boiling house complex minimized the costs of transporting sugar to them. The new village location was more distant from the mill complex. Hence growing cane on the old village site was more efficient that growing it on the new village site.

Map of the New River sugar works in relationship to the New River I and II villages. This map was made using a hand-held GPS device and a total station

The move may have had an unintended benefit for enslaved people because it placed them closer to a deeply eroded drainage or ghut that may have been a water source. Access to water became even less onerous with the construction of a cut-stone cistern for water storage on the site at some point during the occupation. This facility represents a considerable investment by New River's owners. However, why they made it is not clear. One possibility is an increased concern for the well being of enslaved workers, perhaps linked to the end of the slave trade in 1807. A second hypothesis is ecological: the ghut adjacent to the new village only contains water today during storms. Its dry condition may date to the early 19th century.

A second major focus of research is the role that Afro-Caribbean wares played in the lives of enslaved people on Nevis and St Kitts. This pottery is handmade and open fired. Vessels were likely produced on the household level by enslaved women.

Afro-Caribbean wares relate directly to two of the larger themes that motivate our research. First, archaeologists have often assumed that this pottery is evidence for the retention of African potting traditions in the Caribbean. However, an equally plausible hypothesis is that Afro-Caribbean pottery represents a strategic reinvention of African traditions to meet challenges that were unique to life on Nevis under slavery. If this pottery primarily represents continuity in African cultural practice, we would expect their frequency, relative to imported, specialist-produced pottery, to decline with the passage of time.

The second question is if and when slaves on Nevis acquired the motive and means to participate in the consumer revolution, in this case by replacing household-produced pottery with European ceramics whose acquisition required cash (Carson 2003; Galle 2010; Neiman 2005). The chronology developed above offers an opportunity to shed light on both these issues at New River.

Change over time in the proportion of Afro-Caribbean ware, relative to imported ceramics at New River I and II. The central line shows the trend. The lines on either side are 95% confidence limits.

We plotted the proportion of Afro-Caribbean ware in each STP against time. The trend is astonishingly clear. Afro-Caribbean pottery comprises a minority of the New River pottery assemblages until the 1770s. Its popularity peaks in the 1780s and then declines until emancipation. The first half of the trend supports the idea that A-C wares are an adaptive response to conditions that enslaved Africans encountered at New River, although they may have drawn on traditional African knowledge about pottery production. The fact that the frequency peak occurs around 1780 hints that one salient environmental factor may have been the American Revolution, which sharply curtailed shipping from Europe, Africa, and North America into the Caribbean. During this period the importation of provisions, slaves and goods into the Caribbean slowed to a trickle (O'Shaughnessy 2000).

The post-1780 decline in Afro-Caribbean wares may be linked not only to resumed importation of pottery from England but also, perhaps after 1800, to an increase in the effort that enslaved people put into acquiring fancy pottery. Disentangling these two factors requires larger samples of pottery from the later village, which will make it possible to resolve whether there really are two inflection points in the downward curve, suggesting two causes.

Read more about the New River excavations and estate at on the DAACS website.