The Cabrits, Dominica, 2014. The restored portion of Fort Shirley is visible midway up the hill on the left. Photo by Jeffrey Schell.
A handful of the more remarkable sherds on the surface at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014.
Most professional archaeologists argue that all artifacts should remain untouched and in place – in situ – until someone can conduct scientific excavations and capture the precise spatial and temporal relationships of objects in the ground. But many archaeological sites have been disturbed by natural and man-made events. Artifacts, especially ones on the surface, can end up quite a distance from the spot where someone discarded them years ago. Some scholars believe that casual surface collecting has its benefits. The preeminent historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume felt no compunction over pocketing sherds from sites on the islands of St. Eustatius and St. Lucia to compare with those he excavated in Virginia (see his books Martin's Hundred and If These Pots Could Talk). Other people, billing themselves as amateur archaeologists, metal-detectorists, and treasure hunters, advocate for even more aggressive collecting. What good is an artifact above or below the ground surface, they ask? This musket ball, they would point out, was just one of thousands likely scattered around Fort Shirley. And a natural disaster or greedy treasure-seekers could destroy this site long before any professional archaeologist arrives.
Ruins and cannon at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014
Thames artifacts, 2010
But Fort Shirley was archaeologically pristine. And this one piece of Dominica’s history was part of something much greater than a single musket ball. It was part of the cultural patrimony of a place where I was just a visitor. As a historian and archaeologist, I'm a steward of our collective inheritance. In this place, every bit of pottery and shard of metal was a sentence in a grand story waiting for an author. This small artifact – and its part of that story – didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to any one person, really. It belonged to Dominica, and to all of us.
I tucked the musket ball back under its root, where it had rested for two centuries, and watched as the steady rainfall covered it again with dark Dominican soil.