As Diana’s already posted, we had an excellent day yesterday at Tony Meadow’s studio, up above the waters of Llyn Moelfre. It’s a fantastic spot, with views over the valley and red kites overhead. If you’ve never been lost in the right way and ended up in this little corner of the Borderlands, you’re missing out! Only a small, hardy group of us made it down the twisty roads to the studio, but Tony rewarded us with a scrambling tour of the gardens, lodges and forest behind his studio, and tempted us with a standing invitation to the group to use it as the base for sketching days, life-drawing sessions, etc. He then showed us around his compact – small! – garage studio where he works his magic with alginate, plaster, Jesmonite and wax to produce his extraordinary life-castings.

In addition to talking about the processes involved in his life-casting commissions, we also talked about an upcoming job that Tony’s doing for me. In a former life, Tony did archaeological illustration, and when I needed to find someone to help me out with an unusual bit of archaeological casting, Tony was the person that immediately came to mind! This summer, on my usual archaeological excavations on prehistoric Amerindian sites out in the Caribbean, we dug up an artefact unlike anything else we’d every discovered. The site we’re working on is rich in terms of other sites on small islands in the southern part of the Caribbean: lots of pottery, but not much else. Certainly nothing like you find at sites on the large islands in the northern part of the Caribbean: lots of carved stone, sculpture, and even structures like ball-courts. So when we discovered the carved stone head of a zemi in a pit at the edge of our site, it was a complete surprise. To our knowledge, nothing like this has ever been found in any of the smaller, southern islands in the Caribbean.

below: The zemi and the site of Grand Bay, Carriacou, West Indies, June-August 2014.

What’s a zemi? A zemi is the term used to describe triangular-shaped objects, usually carved from stone, that turn up all across the Caribbean islands during the Amerindian period (Roughly from about 800BC to AD1400; our zemi dates from about AD800 – more or less the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain). Most of the time – particularly on the smaller, southern islands – they’re small, only a few centimetres across. Occasionally these small triangles are decorated with hatch-marks down the “spine” of the triangle. But in the larger islands – Dominica, Cuba, Puerto Rico – these zemis can be huge, up to 20-30 centimetres across, and intricately decorated. The zemi we found is like one of these: over 30cm long, with a carved stone face at one end and hatch-marks down its “back”.

What were they? It’s hard to say exactly what they were, but we know that they were embodiments of various Amerindian spiritual beliefs. They seem to have brought together various aspects of Amerindian spiritual practice. Firstly, they seem to have been a focus for shamanic type rituals where participants used hallucinogenic plants to contact or actually become part of the “other world”. The grimacing mouths and wide-open eyes of the faces carved into the zemis reflect the rictus which grips those who take these purgative, mind-altering substances. These zemis would have had shell-inlays set into their eye-sockets and mouths, giving them wide-open, staring eyes and bared teeth. So they were as much representations of celebrants in the process of ritual transformation as representations of “otherworldy” entities (and almost certainly, to the Amerindian mind, there was little distinction). Secondly, we think also that they somehow represented the very islands on which the Amerindians lived. The shape of the tallest point in the triangle, with its sway back, too closely and consistently parallels the shape of the eroded volcanic islands of the Caribbean to be a coincidence. Perhaps they embodied the idea of ancestral spirits of a place. Their triangular, island-like shape, is connected to the triangles that turn up in pottery decoration throughout the Amerindian period. These triangular decorations are often paired with a circle – sometimes the circle is contained within the triangle. Perhaps this motif echoed the sun setting between and behind the triangular islands? It’s certainly a striking echo.

So what’s Tony doing with this zemi? One of the features of archaeology in this part of the Caribbean is that its poorly-funded and under-recognised. The work we are doing on these small islands is crucial in understanding how and why ancient peoples settled and used the island bridge that connects Mesoamerica, South America and the southern part of the United States. It’s a rich and diverse ecological and landscape niche, and understanding its human occupation over time provides us with models for future use of these islands. The Caribbean is now under enormous environmental and ecological stress. Resources are limited, and archaeological sites are under threat from storms and rising sea-levels as much as development or looting. Sites like the one our zemi was found at are being destroyed through a combination of all these factors. A combination of sand-mining, rising sea-levels and storms has, over the past ten years, eroded away our site at the rate of one metre every year. Our zemi was literally on the edge of being eroded out of the site and washed out to sea when we discovered it. So it’s crucial that we gain as much support for the endangered archaeology on these islands, and this zemi – and Tony’s skills – are a critical part of that strategy.

The authorities in Grenada kindly gave us permission to remove the zemi from the island for a limited time so casts can be made – and once that’s done, the original will be returned to its island home. Wile the zemi is in residence here in the Borderlands, Tony is going to make a range of casts for us in Jesmonite. These casts will then be distributed to our archaeology project’s Directors and staff. Some of the casts will be installed in museums – in the US, the UK and the Caribbean – some will be exhibited in University offices, some will be used for travelling displays, some will be used in presentations, lectures and talks at colleges, schools and archaeology societies. I myself will be using a cast, along with my archaeological comics, as a teaching tool in Caribbean schools. The hope is to use the zemi to generate a whole range of different types of interest in the archaeology of these tiny, threatened islands. Tourists, school children, undergraduates, post-graduate researchers, government ministers, local business-leaders – we want everyone to know about the extraordinary and unexpected heritage of these small islands, and to recognise that if we stand by and don’t do anything, that heritage will vanish forever. It’s a message that’s as pertinent to the Caribbean as it is to us here in and around Oswestry.

So, on behalf of archaeologists across the Caribbean, and those for whom archaeology means tourism, jobs, educational opportunities and pride in their heritage: thank you to Tony and his casting skills. It’s interesting to think that, after almost two hundred years, this zemi, this spirit of a distant place is being brought back to new life by Tony’s creative magic, embodying new hopes and new fears for the future, and connecting us once again to our shared ancestral past.

Excavations on Carriacou were carried out between 2007 and 2014 by a team of archaeologists and students under the joint auspices of the University of Oregon and University College London. If you’re interested in more information about the project, reports were published each season in the journal Papers From the Insitutute of Archaeology (London).

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