Dating Artifacts Changes View of V.I. Pre-Columbian History

Rasmussen answers audience questions about his work dating objects discovered 100 years ago in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)
Kaare Rasmussen answers audience questions about his work dating objects discovered 100 years ago in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)

The way Virgin Islanders have seen the history of their islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus might have to be recalibrated, as objects gathered about 100 years ago on the islands recently went through a dating process.

It appears the Taino culture on the islands may have thrived earlier than most literature on the subject states, and the decline of the culture might have started earlier than once thought.

In a presentation co-hosted by the St. Croix Archaeological Society and Friends of the National Park, professor Kaare Rasmussen shared his findings with about 50 residents at Florence Williams Library in Christiansted last week.

He analyzed objects gathered by Gudmond Hatt in 1922. The ceramics and bones had never gone through modern dating processes. Hatt, a Danish archaeologist and cultural geographer, died in 1960. He was a professor of cultural geography at the University of Copenhagen from 1929 through 1947, but he fell into disfavor when he was linked to the Nazi’s. Denmark was occupied by Germany for five years. Modern carbon dating techniques did not come into use until 1949.

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Zandi Hillis Starr and Rick Starr talk with Rasmussen. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)
Zandi Hillis Starr, left, and Rick Starr, center, talk with Kaare Rasmussen. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)

Rasmussen, a professor of archaeometry under the department of physics and chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark, said, “No matter what you thought of Hatt as a man, he was a very good archaeologist.”

Before getting into his results Rasmussen gave the audience a science lesson on the carbon dating process. He also talked about thermoluminescence dating.

He ran carbon dating on 42 samples Hatt collected and the thermoluminescence process on 160.

His tests indicated that the civilization at the Spratt Hall location started in A.D. 550 and the one at Cruz Bay in A.D. 200. He added that the decline of the culture on all the islands was probably around A.D. 1100.

Meredith Hardy, a National Park Service archeologist who was in the audience, asked if whether, after he published a paper on his findings, a “recalibration” of how we look at the pre-Columbian cultures in the islands would be necessary.

He answered yes.

Bernard Castillo and Kynoch Reale-Monroe talk with Rasmussen after his presentation. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)
Bernard Castillo, right, and Kynoch Reale-Monroe, center, speak with professor Kaare Rasmussen after his presentation. (Source photo by Don Buchanan)

Another audience member, William Taylor, asked whether other factors besides dating – wars, migration, climate change – should be considered.

Rasmussen agreed but emphasized, as he did many times during the talk, that he was just a chemist and those other factors did not fall under his purview.

He said the results he was presenting were the culmination of six months of hard work in his laboratory. Objects that Hatt had gathered at Salt River were going to be analyzed next, he said.

The help of Virgin Islanders David Brewer and John Farchette were critical in getting the work done, according to Rasmussen. The pair were counted on to gather soil samples from the sites where the objects were collected.

Rasmussen said Hatt was meticulous in detailing in a diary the excavations he was making, and the diary has played a critical part in the process the team has been going through. They are looking at 10 sites where Hatt gathered objects in his nine months on the islands.

Farchette said the territory should be thankful for the work Rasmussen was doing because this “was invaluable work the territory could not buy.”

Hardy said there was a “dearth of data” about the pre-Columbian island cultures and she could hardly wait to see what would be found when the objects from Salt River were analyzed.

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