Port Royal Earthquake, Part 3: The Archaeology of Port Royal

This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.

Part 1 | Part 2

As the silt from the landslides drifted down the rivers and out into the bay, it settled in a fine layer over the ruins of Port Royal, sealing away a perfect snapshot of seventeenth-century Jamaican life.  The first real archaeological survey of any importance occurred in 1959, when Edwin and Marion Link led an expedition sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Institute of Jamaica.  This was the first mission with their new boat Sea Diver, the first in the world specifically designed for marine archaeology.  The precise time of the earthquake is known from x-rays of one of their finds: a brass pocket watch with hands stopped at 11:43.  They discovered the location of a shipbuilder when they uncovered a trove of ship parts with no fittings and unearthed a fifteenth-century Spanish swivel-gun that may well have been on a vessel belonging to Christopher Columbus.  They found that a man named James Littleton was likely running a tavern by the amount of kitchen equipment cemented together within the ruins of a building that property maps said was his house, including a copper pot still containing the bones of a turtle being cooked for lunch.  They even know what the building looked like because the muck preserved red roof tiles, blackened hearth bricks, and white plaster still imprinted with patterns of the wattle walls it had covered.  Numerous clay pipes and beer bottles gave them a good idea of what the inhabitants did with their spare time (Link, 1960).

In the mid-1960s a plan emerged to develop Port Royal into a tourist destination with hotels, condos, a marina, and a huge cruise ship pier that would require dredging of the sea floor.  A series of small earthquakes shifted the silt around enough to reveal walls and small artifacts, which were immediately picked over by treasure hunters and sold to tourists.  The Jamaican government realized that the only way to protect the site from looting was to excavate it themselves, and hired marine archaeologist Robert F. Marx to lead the project.  In just his first day of exploratory diving, he found shipwrecks, anchors, and numerous objects from the time of the earthquake.  He also discovered a clay pot that was the first evidence of an Arawak Indian settlement on the site.  Years of uncovering buildings and artifacts stymied private development by rich outsiders, despite arguments with the government and threats to Marx himself (Marx, 1973).  This is fortunate because Port Royal was by then considered one of the best late-seventeenth-century sites anywhere in the world.  The Link and Marx excavations proved that the area had the potential to be better than any other British colonial location of its time period (Mayes & Mayes, 1972).

Port Royal Project Archaeological Excavations, Building 4/5.

Throughout the 1980s Donny Hamilton led the Port Royal Project, a joint venture by the Nautical Archaeology Program of Texas A&M University, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.  His team found that the oxygen-free mud had preserved a large amount of organic material for the last three hundred years, including the remains of the HMS Swan, which they were able to identify because it was still lying on top of a house.  Another building in their investigation was divided into three separate two-room shops.  Leather scraps, shoe soles, and a lathe revealed that one probably had a cobbler and wood turner in the front room, while animal bones suggest that a butcher occupied the rear.  Pipes, bottles, and kegs in the other two sections show that both were most likely taverns or wine shops (Hamilton, 2000a, 2001, 2006).  Historical documents such as wills and probate inventories kept in the Jamaican archives allowed the archaeologists to connect their finds directly to the people who had lived and worked in Port Royal around the time of the earthquake.  The combination of written records and recovered objects allowed them to find out exactly who owned particular houses, what sort of trades they practiced, and how their lives intersected with those of their neighbors (Hamilton, 2000b).

Today, Port Royal is a town of just two thousand inhabitants.  Little of its wild past remains on the surface: just two historic buildings, both of which date from after the earthquake.  The underwater ruins, however, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Pots remained in their hearths with bits of charred wood attached to them and one trash barrel still contained the remains of a 1692 haircut.  It is the only submerged city in the Western Hemisphere and the slice of life preserved there gives us a clear picture of how people lived in a time of colonial expansion and industrial transition.  Its artifacts and documents reveal how trade flowed across the world and what people wore, ate, and used in their everyday lives.  (“The Underwater City”).

Port Royal burned hot and bright but only for a moment.  Despite existing for just thirty-seven years, it was among the wealthiest and most important cities in the colonial Western Hemisphere.  It was populated by people from an unheard of variety of classes, nationalities, professions, and faiths.  Three hundred years after its demise, it has become one of the most important archaeological sites of its time period anywhere in the world.  The homes, belongings, and in some cases the bones of its residents provide an unparalleled view of what their lives were like at the very moment of destruction.  Not much has been excavated so far, and Port Royal undoubtedly has many more lessons to offer.

References:

Hamilton, Donny L. “Archaeological Excavations.” The Port Royal Project, 2000

Hamilton, Donny L. “Historical Research.” The Port Royal Project, 2000

Hamilton, Donny L. “Port Royal Archives – Building 1.” The Port Royal Project, 2001

Hamilton, Donny L. “Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, 2006, pg. 2-30

Link, Marion Clayton. “Exploring the Drowned City of Port Royal.” National Geographic February 1960, pg. 151-83 (Online archive requires access.)

Marx, Robert F. Port Royal Rediscovered, 1973

Mayes, Philip, and P. A. Mayes. “Port Royal, Jamaica: The Archaeological Problems and Potential.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, March 1972, pg. 97-112 (Online archive requires access.)

The Underwater City of Port Royal.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre

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