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Black pitch, carved histories

Prehistoric wood sculpture from Trinidad's Pitch Lake

detail of an old wooden bowl with pitch on the edge 

Pitch still overflows the rim of a small wood bowl in the collections of the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago.


Since 6000 BC, if not earlier, Trinidad has been the gateway into the Caribbean for waves of South American migrants - the first stepping stone in the long chain of islands that make up the archipelago. Its critical position to the settlement of the Caribbean is reflected in its deep archaeological record, documenting the complex interactions between its diverse peoples over millennia.

Unique among its archaeological sites is Pitch Lake, one of the largest natural deposits of asphalt in the world, which over the years has yielded extremely rare wood carvings - to date the largest concentration of ancient wood artefacts in the Lesser Antilles. However, unlike any systematic archaeological excavation, these carvings have been dredged up as a consequence of commercial pitch harvesting, and any potential associations between them, or the skeletal remains that were also recovered, have been lost. For this reason, they have not been fully integrated into the (pre)history of the region.

Arts and Humanities Research Council logo

The Black pitch, carved histories project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aims to reinstate them into the culture history of Trinidad.

About the project

Pitch Lake’s contribution to the archaeology of Trinidad - and to Caribbean prehistory in general - has been impeded by the nature of the site itself: impossible to excavate using archaeological methods, only chance finds have been recovered, void of any context and contaminated by pitch.

The project aims to overcome these obstacles, with the aim of placing the artefacts into their chronological and cultural context. Some of the questions explored during the course of the research include:

  • What is Pitch Lake’s position within Trinidad’s archaeological heritage and, more broadly, within the wider circum-Caribbean?
  • More specifically, do the wooden artefacts found in the lake date to a particular period, or is there a wider chronological placement?
  • Were the artefacts carved of locally harvested woods, or were some of the pieces (or woods) imported, and if so, from where?
  • Some object categories (seats, for example) span the circum-Caribbean region. How do the pieces found at Pitch Lake compare and contrast with each other and with other circum-Caribbean examples once placed in a chronological framework? 

Background information

Pitch Lake artefacts

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