Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Perfect Souvenir

Stopping dead in my tracks, I stared at the ground where a small object had caught my eye. Wedged beside a root in the narrow jungle path sat a dusty grey sphere the size of a marble. Picking it up, I could feel the solid weight of a two-hundred-year-old .75-caliber lead musket ball settle into my palm. Long ago, some idle soldier whittled large gashes into the bullet while passing time in a far-flung post of the British Empire.

Fort Shirley, or what’s left of it, sits between two large hills known as the Cabrits on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Once upon a time, Dominica was a booming sugar colony of the British Empire. But by 1854, the fort had outlived its strategic importance, and Britain abandoned it. It took another century for Dominicans to achieve full independence. Today, the island is in the midst of reinventing itself as a natural and cultural haven, and it seems like an anachronism among its Caribbean neighbors, without the cruise ships, duty-free shops, and mass tourism of other places. I arrived there as a guest scholar and crewmember aboard a Sea Education Association sailing school vessel, the Corwith Cramer, after an Atlantic crossing in late 2014. Shortly after we made landfall, I hiked up to the site of Fort Shirley.

The Cabrits, Dominica, 2014. The restored portion of Fort Shirley is visible midway up the hill on the left. Photo by Jeffrey Schell.

For some years, historian Dr. Lennox Honeychurch has directed a small museum and an ongoing restoration project at Fort Shirley. But most of the fort, including the ruins of dozens of stone buildings, remains deep in the jungle. I studied historical archaeology as an undergraduate and worked briefly as an archaeologist, so as I hiked around the overgrown portions of the site I noticed dozens of pieces of Chinese porcelain, British stoneware, and American earthenware scattered on the surface. I picked up a few ceramic fragments, scrutinizing them and imagining what sorts of plates and bowls and cups they were once part of, and then carefully replaced them on the ground. It was only when I found the musket ball that I thought about taking a piece of Fort Shirley home with me.

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

And so I paused, hand halfway to my pocket, wondering whether I could justify taking this musket ball home as a souvenir. Twice in the past few years during visits to London, I happily “mudlarked” along the tidal shore of the River Thames, collecting ancient bits of pottery, clay pipe stems, and broken glass. I still use these artifacts for teaching, and I didn’t worry about collecting them because the Thames is an undeniably disturbed site, jumbled by centuries of tidal flow, construction, and demolition. In fact, the Museum of London encourages mudlarks to report spectacular finds and reserves the legal right to acquire such objects for the their public collection.

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.

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