British Museum blog

New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

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There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

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The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

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Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

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This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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