Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Archaeology

Remnantology Manifesto

I have been considering this for some time. Alena Pirok and I have discussed this for ages and this last fall she had her Armstrong State undergrads explore the remnantology concept. They posted their images on Instagram and it was a real treat to see them play with the idea. But what is the idea? Obviously, I think enough of it to have named my blog after it. But I have yet to fully put into words just what I mean by it. It was one of my only attempts to coin, or re-coin a term. The word itself comes from a subfield of botany and biology, but I see huge material resonances in it. I am working on the chapter ideas for the book on this, but for my own clarity, and for others’ as well, I have sketched out the start of a Remnantology Manifesto that begins to put in words what I can see in the periphery.

The Remnantology Manifesto

Human beings have been busy changing this planet to suit their needs ever since the two Remnant001first met. Those who know, inform us that the human species’ ability to manipulate its environment to suit its specific needs is the principal evolutionary advantage these animals have had over others. This has meant that human history has been filled with the making and remaking and remaking yet again of the places humans have called home. This endless game of revision and modification has left the world littered with remnants—each change large or small displaces something that was there first. In some areas, the change can be dramatic—say for example a farm field transformed into a subdivision. Other times though change can be as light as simple reordering, a shifting around of elements, a layering of one way of using a space atop another. Uses, ornaments, components, can be swallowed up by remaking, renovation, and host of other intentional changes. But there is a separate class of artifacts that just stay where there are unchanged, un-reused, and overlooked. These bits are not in the way enough to cause trouble to how things are being reordered, nor do they need to change to be part of something new. They no longer matter—and at the same time, they are in no one’s way so they illicit no fuss or concern to remove or change them. These objects are Remnantology.

Principle One: Remnantology is a species of Stratigraphy.

In archaeology, the concept of stratigraphy rules the roost. This is the idea that layers form over time and in the perfect conditions, as you move down through the layers, you move “back in time.” The fundamental principal of excavation is the removal of layers (as well as other fills and features) in an orderly fashion to record each and in so doing go deeper in space and deeper in time. Not so with Remnantology—it can be observed, but it cannot be removed to reveal more. It just exists. Yet, Remnantology shares stratigraphy’s understanding of accretion, but the implied horizontality is not there. Remnantology has no layers, but it has superimposition.

Photo Dec 02, 13 49 41Principle Two: Remnantology is Material.

It must exist. It must be a thing—you can touch it, break it, throw things at it. It can be painted, crushed, or stepped on. It must be observable. Remnantology is composed of the things left behind, things that once were vital to how life worked, but have been left behind in some version of their useful state.

Principle Three: Remnantology Hides in Plain Sight.

We are all surrounded by Remnantology—it is fundamental to how the material world is ordered. The challenge is to re-orient how we see what we see, and what we understand of what we see. In that way, Remnantology is way of seeing the world.

Principle Four: Repurposing is not Remnantology.

Repurposing is an act of intentionality. To take a thing, tidy it up, and find a new use for it is really to reintegrate it back into how life is lived. This is fine—valuable even. But it is not Remnantology.

Principle Five: Hate is not the Opposite of Love—indifference is. Remnantology resides in Indifference.

Being overlooked is crucial to being Remnantology. Hatred leads to removal and demolition. Love leads to fetishizing and repurposing. Remnantology is in the middle. Forgotten.

2017-12-02 10.39.29Principle Six: Abandonment is not Remnantology.

Many Remnantology objects seem to be abandoned—and indeed many are left behind. But abandonment is a category unto itself. Garbage is abandoned, a burned out car is abandoned, a home can be abandoned. None of these though are Remnantology. Like Remnantology, abandonment entails a thing no longer being needed for its intended purpose. But, something abandoned is in some way hindering something else’s function. Garbage will eventually be cleaned up. The burned out car is blocking a street or a parking space and is itself a species of nuisance. The abandoned home is in a transitional state—on its way towards demolition or rediscovery—and in the meanwhile is stopping something else from occurring. Remnantology on the other hand, impedes nothing, interferes with no vital action or activity, and not in a transitional state. It just exists.


Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Backtrack Phase One. 

Riding the ACA Western Express Bicycle Route

Let’s call it “The Slingshot”–that sounds better than backtracking. The idea is to roll back a bit to leap forward. Our time is limited, and we have a hard time making the miles we need to get to the eventual rendez-vous. My name for the tour was well chosen. 

Today we made 58 miles in good order with two climbs and a steady headwind. It was of course terrain we had done before, but that is the principal of The Slingshot. I am glad to be leaving Rt 50 behind even though much of the land it traverses is lovely. There is a bleak and foreboding to Nevada. It is a place creatures like us were not meant to live in, and there always is something appealing about those places that have bested us and not the other way around. Sure, there are big boxes here, and Modern Homoamericanus has done all he can to force his needs upon this unwilling landscape. But the sun, and the dust, and the blistering heat are constantly shouting back that man is not the master here. Yesterday in the shade of the cottonwoods and again this morning loading the bikes in the shade of an old bunkhouse, I noticed that the air was just perfect–as far as I was concerned you could just pipe it into my house. But as soon as I stepped out of the shade an into the sunlight, the bright glittering molten sledgehammer came down on my head like sixty pounds of baked potatoes right out of the oven. Meanwhile, we learned that it was hailing in Ely. Someone does not want us here.

It was not always thus. Rami and I napped mid day near some petroglyphs. We had made it through the salt flats where the heat was well over 100 degrees. The picnic tables at the petroglyphs are the first shade we saw in 40 miles or more and we had planned to rest out the worst of the heat there. God himself must be smiling on The Slingshot since the sky was filled with clouds for the first time since we were here. They acted as a parasol and made some of the climbing easier before they took their leave. While we rested, distant dark clouds scuffed into view,and I could see rain falling on the far mountains. About 10,000 years ago this world was totally different and we have to thank the ancient petroglyphiacs for some of this information as well as data from some sites. The killing salt flats had been salt marshes and were home to water birds, sandhill cranes, and of course the people who ate them. Rami reflected on the idea that one problem with man-made and man-enhanced climate change is that it’s speed means that there is not time for animals to adapt. He thought maybe the little tan chipmunks had had the time to adapt to their new environment. Indeed they have–at least to the one they are in now. The animals were on us the second we sat down at a park table. They darted around our shoes and chased around under the table waiting for whatever scrap or crumb fell. They even scampered up the bikes to get in the open panniers and a few even reached up from the ground to try and claw at the bottoms. Adaptive little buggers. We eventually fed them some science fruit squeezes and watched the show. 

It turns out there is a heatwave now and even locals are concerned over it. People tell us all the time that we are crazy–that is common tbing for cyclists to hear. But the heat has added a level of wonder to people’s condemnations–and fairly too. Today was the first day we saw other cyclists on the road. We had passed one or two here or there before, but few tourers and no feeling of mass. Today we passed a large supported group traversing Nevada, a lone east-bounder who looked in fine form and second who was less so. The second’s problem was the he had only one water bottle, was dry already, and had a big backpack on. He was young and strong and would probably be fine, but he knew he needed to adapt to his new environment–like a chipmunk.

We also passed a group of three cyclists who were taking a break. It is always good to stop and chat to see what you might learn about the path. In this case, it was a group of friends from Chicago heading east to, well, somewhere. A bit like us. They seemed up to the task and we rode on. Later in the day tbough we stopped for water at the first convenience after the desert flats and the three riders were there. They had back tracked too and must have passed us while we’re napping with the chipmunks. Now we are a small group riding The Slingshot back towards Carson City. 

Washington in Barbados (or a Long Post About a Short Trip)

George Washington was famously well-traveled. His careers as a surveyor and soldier of the King gave him a detailed familiarity the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Riding at the head of the Continental Army brought him to and through cities and communities all along the eastern seaboard, and once elected president he used travel as a way to see and be seen by the people of the new United States.


Walter Kerr Cooper’s imagining of GW in Barbados.

But for all of this travel, he only left the continental US once in his life. For four months at the end of 1751 he accompanied his sickly brother Lawrence to the British Colony of Barbados. The trip was meant to address his older brother Lawrence’s weak lungs by bringing them from Virginia to the softer, breezier, less humid, supposedly more healthful air of the Caribbean. Lawrence’s problems had actually begun years earlier in the Caribbean, but the view that changing one’s air could change one’s health was one was tenet of one of the competing regimes of medical logic confronting an ailing eighteenth-century Briton looking for relief. The Washington brothers had already traveled up to the Appalachian foothills to seek out the warm springs and cool dry air of what is now Jefferson County West Virginia. But that had limited effect at best. The Barbados trip was another attempt clean out, air out, and dry out Lawrence’s failing lungs.

And so it was that the two took bunks on a Barbados-bound vessel. There is some disagreement about just what ship this was. Some advocate a trip from a Potomac port aboard the Success, while others have argued that the sailed from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock about the aptly named Fredericksburg. The George Washington Papers project at UVa and the Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon are in the later stages of creating a new and probably authoritative edition of the small, damaged, and fragmentary journal Washington kept during his trip.


A little section of GW’s navigation note courtesy of The Washington Papers

Project Editor Alicia Anderson has made it her business to master enough trigonometry to be able to use Washington’s navigation notes to plot out the pace and path of the voyage. The chart she will create will go a long way towards settling the port of embarkation question. While we wait though, the most commonly read copy of the Barbados Journal is the one edited by J.M. Toner and published in 1892. It is full of oddities and errors, but it works. I have kept a copy of it on my phone so that I can refer to it on the fly while on the island. The George Washington Diaries also handled the Barbados Diary with a very good descriptive essay and a facsimile of the original which resides in the Library of Congress. The book I am now writing has a chapter on the Barbados trip and soon the new edition of the Diary will be out. Erin Holmes also will be pairing Washington’s homes and Barbadian homes in her University of South Carolina dissertation comparing plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados, so GW’s time on the island is really happening!

The Brothers W arrived at Bridgetown in late October (or so it seems—the first actual entry on the island is dated November 4th, but pages before it are missing). They had a fairly calm crossing in which they enjoyed the swells of the sea and ate dolphin—a Caribbean favorite which smart marketers have renamed Mahi Mahi so that no one thinks they are eating a porpoise. In arriving at Bridgetown, Washington landed in the most cosmopolitan British city he had ever seen. The two colonies were roughly the same age, shared a somewhat similar history, had long-standing and extensive trade connections, and bore a superficial resemblance in government and society. Before sugar took over the island’s acres, planters had made a short- lived stab at tobacco planting hoping to recreate Virginians’ early seventeenth-century success. Like Virginians, Barbadian Britons could talk of an assembly, a governor and his council, they lived on plantations, and relied on enslaved African labor to keep themselves fed and have their fortunes made.


Henry Partleton’s 1880 photo of Bajan cane cutters.


On top of that, the mix of Britons and enslaved Africans was a bit like that found along Virginia’s rivers. But that was where the similarities ended. Bridgetown was nothing like any place in Virginia graced as it was with in-town homes of wealthy planters, an English-style church, well-built and fully manned military instillations, and large a Spanish and Portuguese descended Jewish community of merchants. An upcoming blog entry will deal a bit more with Washington and the Jews of Barbados. But even though Washington was something of a city kid by Virginia standards having lived most of his life at the doorstep of the small city of Fredericksburg, Bridgetown was something new.

The countryside was different as well. Sugar production led to a very different form of African enslavement and called into being very different cycles of labor. And Virginia was big: really quite big. That size—especially on its western edge—had already defined a significant part of the lives of the Brothers W and would soon offer even more. Even where Virginia settlement was dense it was never particularly crowded. By contrast, Barbados was a tiny island packed tight with actually fairly small sugar plantations and the distinctive stone windmills used to grind the valuable juice out of the cane. Washington noted that “scarcely any part” of the island “is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea & land.” (Toner, 58). He was correct, and his observation is of course still true today—but the many views only emphasize the tiny scale of the island.


St Philip’s Church in the early 19c. The church I think is later than GW’s visit, but the landscape is more or less the same. I doubt GW got this far from Bridgetown though.

But the young Washington was thrilled at what he saw on this grand adventure. On his trips into the countryside he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects” which presented themselves to he and Lawrence and he marveled at the “fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees &c. in a delightful green”(Toner, 42). Washington took note of landscape and vegetation on these country forays. He commented on soil quality, the scale of sugar production, and agricultural practices. This was more than a mere curiosity. Sugar was a far more lucrative crop than was Virginia’s tobacco—partly accounting for why comparatively small island holdings could yield profits enough to even allow some planters to live well back in England. By way of context, a large Barbados plantation would be about 400 acres–that was the size that Washington said were the largest plantations. Henry Drax though owned 705 acres at the end of the seventeenth-century. His was one of the largest holdings on the island and one that allowed him to live back in England. On the other hand, John Dottin’s Mount Edge was 166 acres in 1759—a far more typical holding for a nice plantation. Plots of 10 acres though were not uncommon though. Compare that with the close to 1000 acres Washington inherited when his father died (himself owning l close to 10,000) of the 18,000 acres Washington took control of when he married Martha. Washington was just then making his first money though land surveying—an enterprise that rested on the availability of ever more new lands. To a Virginian, Barbados’s planters and their agricultural system working a tiny patch of land in the middle of nowhere seemed to hold the key to a sort of magical alchemy for making a fortune. At the same time though, Washington seemed astounded that so many planters were in debt or even lived poorly–a foreshadowing of his own unease with debt.

Washington also brought some book learning to his descriptions. He referenced Griffith Hughes’s 1750 The Natural History of Barbados and matched his own descriptions of plants to those of Reverend Hughes. When and where Washington saw the book is unclear. A copy did not end up in his library, but there may have been one at the Fairfaxes’. It is also possible that he had a copy (or bought a copy) on the island itself. However he laid his hands on Hughes’s work, it is one of the earliest examples we have of Washington employing reading in this fashion.


A folio of Hughes from the Barbados Museum. Washington was interested in nature enough to have even come home with a small bit of coral.

The brothers settled into a simple one-story rented house which sat on a rise of land a short distance east of Bridgetown. For the cost of 15 Pounds a month paid to an officer of the garrison, they had the run of the place—but they had to pay for their own liquor and laundry. The home was close to the stone coral fort at Needham’s point and close to the garrison’s parade ground. It also afforded a superb view of Carlisle Bay with its ships riding at anchor. This home is now restored to an eighteenth-century appearance and serves as a museum dedicated to the Washingtons’ time on the island. The home is larger than it was then and has had a second story added to it, but the feel is there. The area around it is completely changed as well. The commanding view is blocked by trees and a new building cut directly into the limestone hillside. The garrison has changed considerably too. What began as useful flat near Needham’s Point grew in the nineteenth-century into an expansive military complex ringing a large turf race course. Today it all is the home of schools, government buildings, the Barbados Historical Society and museum, and the Barbados Defense Forces who, by the way, have a legal monopoly on the wearing of camouflage on the island. Colonial Williamsburg conducted excavations at the home in 1999 and 2001. These mainly concentrated on the steep ravine to the east of the home—a logical place for centuries’ worth of trash to accumulate. Virginia students still return here to do some digging in the ravine to this day. The artifact assemblages though cover a large swath of time, and apart from some very familiar 1740s and 50s white salt glazed stoneware plate, nothing has emerged dating with any precision to the years of the Washington visit—nor is anything much likely to. Nevertheless, the lower parts of the house—and especially its cellar with its hewn stone and wooden beams—are good links to the eighteenth century.

While the purpose of the trip was largely medical, the Washingtons did a considerable amount of socializing with the local gentry. Their main contact on the island was Gedney Clarke, a player in the local commerce and governance as well as being Lawrence’s wife Anne’s stepmother’s brother (head spinning as that connection seems to us, eighteenth-century English families were pretty used to these extended networks of kin by blood or marriage).

Barbados Girl.jpg

Agostino Brunias’s “The Barbadoes Mulato Girl’ circa 1765. This depiction of Barbadian women captures very much the sort of enslaved people Washington would have seen.

Clarke had a thriving trade with William Fairfax and sent not only sugar and rum to the Potomac, but also procured enslaved people and goods for the Fairfaxes and other members of their extended commercial family—including both Lawrence and George. Clarke opened society’s doors, and with his aid Washington toured fortifications, dined with several prominent families (sometimes with their daughters deliberately placed front and center), attended the theatre, went to church, and rode into the countryside when he could. It is not clear just how far northward Washington actually ventured. His descriptions best match the rising hills of the south, and nowhere did he mentioning the rather astounding natural features of the north. He did nevertheless refer to people who at least had land there even if Washington never made it that far above the Bridgetown area.

Washington clearly was matching what he saw on the island against what he knew at home. “The ladys generally are very agreeable” he wrote, but also felt that they were prone to “affect the Negro style” perhaps in speech and manner—something the young Virginian saw as a liability compared to the women he knew back home. (Toner, 61). This racially inflected haughtiness was no doubt one of the reasons that he did not return home with a Barbadian bride or a prospect in mind. He noted the level of militia service and how men were apportioned in some detail, and he also discussed the island’s defenses noting that “they have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to land.” (Toner, 62). I find it very interesting that Washington paired concerns about race and fortifications in his journal—something that I will be discussing in the upcoming book’s Barbados chapter.

Clarke—or rather, someone in the Clarke household—was responsible for the most enduring outcome of the Barbados trip—George’s bout with small pox. The Washingtons knew that someone either at the Clarke plantation house or the in-town house had the disease, but they risked a dinner visit nonetheless. Once the illness had passed Washington could record in the diary that on November 17th, he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” (Toner, 53). As these things went, it was on the mild side and obviously could have gone far worse. But that would have meant nothing to a young man sweating out a renowned deadly fever far from home and attended by caring, though ultimately unfamiliar people.


Sugar cane was generally ground to produce cane juice which could be boiled to make sugar. English Barbadian planters used either wind, oxen, or horses to move the grinders. The windmill was so common a sight little images of them adorn over a century of maps. Today only one wind mill still functions–Morgan Lewis on the north eastern side of the island. Image from the George Grantham Bain collection.

He spent most of November in bed—the diary is understandably silent. By December 12th he was recovered enough to visit the Clarkes in Bridgetown and thank them for their care and visits during his illness. The consequences of Washington’s smallpox are difficult to pin down. There are those who like to say that that fevered island month inoculated George against the disease, and thus ensured that he would not die of it before, or even during the Revolution. That line of reasoning’s implications are clear: a small amount well-timed body fluid contact preserved Our Washington and in so doing secured the fate of the Republic. There are a lot of “ifs” in that charming premise, but one can understand how such a view could take root. The other often-cited consequence was that the fever rendered Washington incapable fathering children. This outcome is the opposite of the former outcome. In the former, Washington is saved to be the Father of the Country, whereas in the later he is denied the ability to be a father. And of course there is a relationship between the two outcomes. The challenge here is the uncertain relationship between small pox and male sterility. The simplest version of this relationship is that there is none—small pox does not cause sterility. The fever itself though can do permanent damage and other opportunistic illnesses can do their horrid work while a body’s defenses are down. The answer though is that we cannot say with any real certainty that the lack of direct line little Washingtons was because of that poorly timed dinner at the Clarkes’s.

As this rather long entry shows, I have quite a bit to say about Washington and Barbados—here I just spun out a few of the themes I am working with. And I have not even touched yet on Washington memory on the island long after the famed visit. A few important take aways though are the value of the Barbados Diary as an early and quite revealing Washington foray into the world of words. Another is the chance to see the Virginian mind (some may say gaze) examining a place similar enough to grant purchase, but alien enough to captivate. Still another is what we see of the island itself. The Barbados trip is usually a quick moment in most Washington literature. I am glad I am giving it a bit more page space than is usual.

Barbados, Day Three. Slavery’s Shadow

I began today by catching up. Wireless is ok, but not great, so I was pretty glad to find that the café at the GW House has a strong connection. The house has become a sort of base of operations so finding out that the café’s digital dynamism made things even better. I talked more with Martin Miller and met Mikala Hope-Franklyn who also is part of the GW House team.


A somewhat different view of the George Washington House

These folks are such great and enthusiastic young museum professionals—wonderful to talk with them. Likewise, meeting with GW Papers team as we sort of half planned and then chatting with Karl Watson the local dean of things Bajan and Historical was great.

I spent the rest of the day heading north. Nominally, St. Nicholas Abbey was my destination, but as is often the case the trip and getting lost a few times was built into the plan. There is a highway that heads north though to Americans it is really just a four lane road punctuated by roundabouts. I switched on local new radio and charged north. In several places the sea view just opens up and again you get that feeling of being on an island. I keep trying to remind myself that this place is small and remote even, but it seems pretty all encompassing when here. Only the sea—flat and empty in all directions highlights isolation, and the place is so packed and bustling that without the sea in sight, you forget.


A pano view of the back of St Nicholas Abbey

I got to the home to too late for a tour so I just took some pictures and sheltered from a short rain storm. This is the oldest of the seventeenth-century homes and is managed as a museum and events all. Lots of latter additions behind it and I could hear meetings going on. There also is active sugar cultivation on site and the barns were busy.

Once I was done, I knew I wanted to head down the eastern side of the island having come up the west. What I did not know was that the road was going to slam me into what is honestly one of the best views in the western hemisphere. It comes up on suddenly. You drive along going up a hill, minding your own business, listening to the BBC talking about Syrian peace talks, then in an instant,


The view from Cherry Tree Hill. I find cherry trees everywhere I go!

you crest a hill and the whole eastern shore of the island is hey presto spread out before you from atop a high hill. There is a little pull over and I jumped out of the car. Clearly people picnic here judging from the hundreds of chopped coconuts and the stacked push carts of the now off duty vendors. Either the rain or the lateness of the day though left me with the place to myself, so I climbed up a very steep trail to see if the view was better a bit higher and off the road. It actually wasn’t, but something about getting off the road and into the fields made me think about all the Africans, Irishmen, Indians, and others for whom this place was a living hell, a purgatory, a prison with no hope of escape. Seeing the hills, the shore, and sea in that light brings home the loneliness, sorrow, and misery that is so much a part of the history of this place and others like it. Earlier on my drive, I had seen the statue at Emancipation Circle—a bronze of a man standing up in a pose much like the old Massachusetts’s seal, but with broken chains hanging from his wrist manacles.


Emancipation Circle

It is a good memorial—and seeing from this perch just how small and inescapable was this Barbados drove home what had been at stake. The emancipation statue is a remarkable thing—even though drivers whiz around it all day long presumably without remarking. We in the US are now in the midst of our own debates about statues and for the life of me I could not think of a single monument like this one. I assume that is a failing of mine, but nevertheless, I think American monument makers have made it easy for me to not recall one. We have though used considerable bronze to commemorate some aspects of, and characters from slavery’s story in almost all southern cities—but none, or at least very few, have hands with the chains broken. Curious that. I am not for the removal of Confederate monuments outright, but then again, I am a preserver and not a remover by nature and by professional inclination, so my impulse to leave them in place needs to be seen (and appropriately devalued) in light of that fact. But recontextualizing would certainly be a very good thing. What does a metal Robert E. Lee mounted a-top a metal Traveler look like if they was surrounded by castings of the emancipated? What if the base of the statue was fitted with a giant manacle or one of those pronged collars designed to make it impossible for the poor wearer to move about or lie down? It is a discussion long overdue.

The sun was setting as I drove home. The cyclist are out at the starts and ends of the days and I was so full of jealousy when I had to pass a few pace lines and group rides. These are the serious miles riders with good bikes, helmets, lycra, and lights—my people! The roads are very rough and the guy at the cycle shop said that it was an increasing problem for riders. The government here is suffering financial problems. Barbados’s economy is almost entirely tourism-based, and as the word economy slowed down, people stopped coming here. One manifestation of the problem is that there is not money to repair and maintain roads–and you can really see it everywhere you go.

oistins-fish-fry-0058.jpg had a better photo of the Oistins market stalls than I could take, so here it is. This is a big scene in the evenings. Lots of people chatting and eating.

At the end of the day I stopped in Oistins to sit in the market and let the night come over. I reread GW’s Barbados diary again to see what parts I might see anew in light of today’s visits. He saw the form of plantation slavery here and he had to have known that was different in some respects from what he knew at home in Virginia. He never commented on it though. I saw reminders and memories of that plantation slavery, and they were quite different than what we have back at home. When it comes to commemorating the memory, we have a lot to learn.



Chattel Houses of Barbados

One of the more notable architectural features in Barbados are the so-called Chattel Houses. These are—depending on whom you ask—a legacy of slavery or of freedom. Essentially, these are very small rectangular wooden homes designed to be light and mobile. The “Chattel” refers to, again, depending on whom you ask, the houses themselves or the people who lived in them. The real story is that they address the needs of poor landless people–tenants or sharecroppers–who often had to move from land plot to land plot. Having a small and easy take down. move, and set up again home as their own “chattel” made good sense and made this distinctive house form an early form of mobile home. They are all over the place and are the defining Bajan architectural statement.


Two variations on the theme just outside Bridgetown. Note how the one on the right is really a pile of houses.

The basic design is simple and easy to move from one place to another. Many houses sit on stone foundations, some sit on pillars, others only on rocks at each corner. Eighteenth-century Virginia documents talk about dragging cabins from place to place as the planting rotation changed and workers or overseers were needed in other parts of the acreage. Rather than having multiple homes with some in use and some out, moving a home once in a while was more preferable.

The chattel houses though have stuck and taken on a vernacular life of their own. They are everywhere—often two set side by side to make a single M roofed building, or equally often with a shed on the back or some amazing sprawl of boxes and sheds all piled up together. You can see them in bright colors or not even painted and all weather-work.


Some country examples near Drax Hall. Note the cinderblock columns supporting the homes.

I have seen them with new Pella windows installed and others with no glass windows at all—just a slatted closure held open at the bottom with a propped stick. Most are about 15 feet by 6 feet and and I have seen center ridge roofs set high and some with very low pitches. I have seen them with  hipped roofs and some with shed roofs. Most have  center entrances but I have seen some around Bridgetown’s outskirts that have gable entrances like shotgun shacks.

Out on the north eastern coast near the town of Coach Hill, I came across a lone chattel house in a clearing next to the road. The ground had been burned and there was some trash nearby—but the door was gone and it was clearly unoccupied. IMG_2968.JPGI pulled over and hopped out. The house was made of very small light wood—no heavy framing and all wooden strips inside (no sheetrock for example). This one had a small shed addition which contained a toilet and a sink, but no evidence of plumbing. Here was the Tiny House par-excellence and I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one—alone or with a family, this is a very small space. Obviously, much of one’s life would be lived outdoors or elsewhere. But having loved many an AT shelter, it was easy to imagine being quite happy in one—especially with the Atlantic stretching blue to the east within sight. Of course a good wind storm would knock my little domicile around like a cardboard box. But Barbados is spared most storms as a result of being outside the actual Caribbean basin, perhaps accounting for why these houses abound.


Inside my chattel house. Notice how light and far apart are the framing members. Being inside felt like being inside a cigar box.


My chattel house’s rear view showing shed addition and shed roof. Notice the stuccoed cinderblock foundation. Someone cared.

Barbados, Day Two

Today began very gray but cleared up. I got up early and rushed back to town to try to recover my glasses which I had left on a wall in the cemetery. The Shul was open when I got there, so I had the pleasure of saying shacharit (albeit alone) in the beautiful old Nidhai Israel shul. It is very much like a British shul with the same type of stying and pillars holding up the women’s gallery. One difference was that the Bimah (raised reader’s table) was in the back and not in the center. I am a big fan of facing bench seating in shuls–in my mind it plays down hierarchy in favor of communalism.


The Bimah in Nidhi Israel

This building dates to about 1831 when the great hurricane demolished much of older Barbados. This new shul sits on the foundations of the original which dated to the mid seventeenth century.

Some visitors came through and they must have thought that I was some sort of museum display set up for effect and authenticity. When I was done, Emerson, the tender, directed me to meet Benny Gilbert, a retired local property developer and one of the community’s elders. His wife is an Altman—one of the oldest Ashkenazi families on the island. Mr. Gilbert invited me back to his office for coffee and a chat and so we walked though the crowded Bridgetown streets having the kind of conversation one would have any where in the world after saying “shalom alechem – alechem shalom.” Mr. Gilbert had much to share about the island, its Jews, and his life as one of them. He explained that the original Spanish community was all but gone by the end of the 18c and that the Ashkenazim came in waves, many spending a few generations here and then fading away only to be replaced by new families. This was much the same as I had seen in some places in England—wandering, to paraphrase perhaps the most famous (sort of I guess) English Jew, Shylock, is the badge of all of our tribe.


The shul is on the left, and the mikveh newly built is on the right.

I returned to the Shul after my visit and got there in time to see that the guide had brought visitors in to see the mikveh. This 1650s bath was discovered archeologically a few years ago and once the stone rubble had been removed, the water returned. It requires no filtering—it is fresh, clear, and tapped into the water table.


Newly rediscovered mikveh

They have built a very lovely building over it from the removed stone rubble and it is quite a gem. I waited and listened to the talk about how the 17c Jews here used the mikveh—a description based largely on 17c travel narratives. The mikveh is not formally open to the public (vistors can look in with the guide), but religious exceptions are made from time to time. A few weeks ago a pair visiting Chabniks went in and today it was my turn. The water was clear and cool and the stones 17c. It was a remarkable experience.

When I was done I went back to looking over the grave stones to find specific people I was curious about. In looking around, there seems to have been some surface level change though. Some nearby construction has left some holes and poked around a bit just outside the footers of the old cemetery wall.


Construction and stones.

I saw at least four layers including two that appeared to be mostly pavers. The most interesting thing was that this new construction had uncovered a section of the cemetery that had been buried and had had 19c shops atop it. Those shops have been gutted and their floors removed. The result are the most amazingly well-preserved stones in the yard.


Newly exposed stones. The doorways on the right are at current surface level and lead out to the street.

These are mostly of English Jews, some of whom had adopted the stone styles of their Sephardic predecessors. I am told that the development plan calls for all the graves to be reincorporated into the cemetery which will retake its original size. More on the stones later.

Much of the rest of the day was spent at the George Washington house again, this time looking over the artifacts from the 1999 and 2001 excavations. I have the reports and the artifact lists in them, but the only way serendipity can happen is when you let it. The excavations were primarily in the ravine west of the home. The collections span a large period and of course trying to find 1751 in an assemblage is not an easy task.

Once I was done, I thought it would be nice to get out into the countryside.


Looking south from the first major rise of land.

I was right. I drove north mostly by zigzagging the road system. The south has a large sloping plain, so that heading north means heading up as well. As Washington observed, the landscape is made so that views of the sea are to be found throughout.


Drax Hall. In private hands and not open to the public, but still owned by the Drax Family in England as it was in the 17c and still producing sugar.




I wended my way up to Drax Hall—a well known 17c plantation and home just about one third up the island from the south coast. Sugar is still grown here in the hundreds of tons for shipment to European markets. Interestingly though, none of the Bajan plantations produce any molasses. That means that all the Barbados rum is made from imported molasses—not local. There is a metaphor for something in there.





Barbados, Day One.

Mid-day arrival. Airport, car, blah blah. Thank heaven I had already driven in the UK and all those trips have made looking right when crossing or turning not an unfamiliar thing. The road to Oistins where I dwell in Bajan fashion (no hotel in other words) skirts the southern coast and that tiny island feeling is pronounced. People are everywhere on the south side and the cars are all small. I got quickly settled and jumped back in the car to make the most of the day.


Automotive conveyance in the British fashion–on the left.

The drive to Bridgeton was slow but I was glad of that since it I needed the adjustment time. One or two wrong turns and a few pull overs to reconcile to the map that has no street names. I overshot the Washington House on my way in so I chose to forge on to the center of town and find the synagogue first. I circled around and around a few times before I gave up searching by car and just found a parking area and walked. A woman asked me if I was “going to the cemetery?” “Eventually” I replied and she said “well it is straight ahead” ignoring my travel frazzled wit. I did not know just what she meant,


Downtown Bridgetown

but in a block I saw the pink walls of the Synagogue and realized that the big cemetery is the main feature of the site. My guess is that the only tourists on that side of town are looking for the place.

This was one of those days when the doorway is always on the fourth wall after I walk the other three. In this case, it was an alley that led to the Shul, the museum, the Mikveh, and the cemetery.

On this side of the shul, most of the graves are seventeenth century and early eighteenth with a few more modern ones interspersed. The older ones are in Spanish and Portuguese as well as Hebrew. Some have remarkable art—deaths heads for example, both ornate and simple—that I don’t usually associate with Jewish graves. The whole cemetery has been the subject of a restoration project with great detail on this blog.


The northern side of the cemetery where most of the graves are Spanish and 17c. The foregrounded ones though are contemporary and are those of the Ashekenazim who eventually replaced the original community. The shul is in the background.

I will be back at the Shul in the morning though and will have more to say after that visit. For today I was driven by the desire to sing Tehillim in the cemetery and visit. There is something very special singing “od avinu chai” (“our fathers still live”—not a psalm) in such a place. IMG_2672.JPGThe seventeenth-century Jews of Barbados lived in a world so different from ours and from the reality of Barbados today just outside the wall. But at the same time, the names and fact of a shul again close the time and make the alien familiar. Visitors’ stones are on many of the graves: a pleasant bond over time and space.


Some of the stones have very little on them identifying them as Jewish.

And speaking of familiar names, George Washington, the reason for the season. Objective One on this trip is to flesh out what I need to create a full chapter on his Barbados trip for the new book. I already have about three ideas to play out in the chapter, but being here links things together. I made it to the Washington House just before dark and fortunately Martin Miller was still there. We had a great chat and I saw a few of the main sites, including the ravine where the middens were. Tomorrow (ideally) I will get to look at artifacts but I saw one today. It was a classic White Saltglazed Stoneware plate—making it the fourth place I can say that GW was eating off of that sort of plate.


Dispatches from Reportland.

There is a special joy to writing archaeological reports. In writing regular prose one thinks economically. Every line of page space is valuable real estate, and so, each idea has to make a case for its inclusion. In most writing one is wary of opening unwanted doors, or hinting too broadly at themes one does not plan on addressing. The result is that great care taken to tie up ends and not waste time. But in reports, there is no idea, no research choice, no hypothesis on the way to another hypothesis that should be silenced. If books and articles are about persuasion, craftsmanship, and artifice, then reports are their more democratic populist cousins. You ideas had better measure up to make it into article prose, but over in Reportland, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight no matter how consequential or trivial they are. Reports are great places to indulge the anal-retentive detail-mad side of one’s mind.

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