Archaeological dig in Charlotte Amalie unearths 2,000-year-old trash heap

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ST. THOMAS - In the heart of Charlotte Amalie, archaeologists for the last two weeks have been digging, sifting and sorting through a 2,000-year-old trash pile.

They say that it is one of the most significant archaeological sites that likely will ever surface in the territory.

From a dog skull to pottery faces to crystal beads, the block-long pit has been more of a treasure trove than a dump.

Thousands of fragments have been recovered, many of them pieces of shell, bone and pottery - some of which is painted or even engraved. "This is one of the most significant sites I've worked on," said Betsy Carlson, one of several archaeologists on-site specializing in Caribbean archaeology.

The archaeologists started fully excavating the site Jan. 20, and their work is expected to continue through Friday. Since the dig began, Main Street has been fenced off from Market Square to Club 75.

However, pedestrians still are able to walk past, curiously watching the dozen or so archaeologists take up the ground with the help of a handful of volunteers and laborers.

The excavation, which has cost more than $100,000, according to lead investigating archaeologist David Hayes, is fully funded by the federal government, specifically the Federal Highway Administration. Federal law requires that such digs take place at sites with proven archaeological value.

"You don't destroy artifacts needlessly," Hayes said.

About a year ago, Hayes noticed that shards of pottery and shells were being uncovered during a sewer line dig under way by the V.I. Public Works Department.

"We had to do a full-scale mitigation," Hayes said.

The artifacts were part of what is known as a midden, or a trash pile.

It was where a people known as the Saladoids, a people possibly descending from the Taino people in South America, used to throw their waste.

"This is my favorite," said Sylvia Chappell, a volunteer who flew from New York to spend her vacation at the site. "There was a stone sphere inside a whelk shell. I have some very interesting, off-the-wall ideas about what it might have been."

Archaeologists are finding the materials in a variety of ways. They first take hand tools to the wet clay ground to unearth 2-meter sections. From those sections, they remove large rocks, shells and pieces of pottery.

Finer materials are separated by hand and then washed and sifted over a screen.

Unfortunately, the excavation will have to come to a close by week's end because of the impending Carnival festivities from April to May.

Archaeologists are working diligently to remove as much material as possible before Public Works begins work again on the sewer line in the same location.

Undoubtedly, many of the artifacts never will be recovered once the segment is paved over.

However, those that are collected will be sent to a radiocarbon dating firm in Florida so that the dates of the layers of material can be positively identified.

"This is a museum collection coming out of the ground," Hayes said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email

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