From pots to clays to rocks: re-making Afro-Caribbean pottery

For the past 350 years, Afro-Caribbean pottery has been made by hand in the West Indies. Enslaved Africans created these rustic vessels for their own use – jars for cooking and bowls for eating – from the end of the 17th century until emancipation in 1833.  The descendants of those freed slaves make different vessels today – braziers (‘coalpots’), casseroles (‘yabbas’), water jars (‘monkeys’), jugs and flowerpots – using many of the old methods of manufacture [see Figure to the right/left].

Trace element ratios for Afro-Caribbean pottery samples from three sites on Nevis

Archaeologists have yet to find where these pots were made throughout this long period of history.  Was there one sugar plantation estate where all of this pottery was produced on each island; a single production location with one clay source utilised per island?  Or were there potters on every plantation making their own pottery creating dispersed production with many sources of clay?

Did this pattern change through time? Can we find the same or different production systems in place during the pre-emancipation period of slavery, the economic depression of the post-emancipation period, and the tourism development phase of modern times? Today there is one source of clay utilised and one ‘pottery’ remaining on each of four islands in the Eastern Caribbean – Jamaica, Antigua, Nevis and St. Lucia – but what was it like in the past?

On-going research by myself and Rex N Taylor began in 2011 by identifying the suite of trace elements, or signature ratios, present in the clay fabrics of 13 pot sherds from Afro-Caribbean assemblages dated to the late 17th-early 18th century recovered at three sites on Nevis excavated by our students as part of their training – Upper Rawlins, Charlestown-Waterfront, and Mountravers. Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) analysis revealed that two or three sources were used to make these early pots [see Figure to the right/left].  The next stage is to establish whether this is the same for all three major periods by analysing 50 sherd samples from pottery of later date from five assemblages, as well as 15 clays from different parts of the island.  This will be followed by sequencing selected trace element ratios for each volcanic eruption that created Nevis and tracking the sedimentary history from these rocks into clays and the human history from these clays into pots.

Nevis Pottery: Afro-Caribbean pots after firing
Nevis Pottery: Afro-Caribbean pots after firing