The history of the Caribbean is well documented. Tomes have been written by many historians across the globe. However, some of the Caribbeanå‘s heritage is yet to be discovered. This is because it is hidden by the clear waters that surround the beautiful island chain. One organisation that is in the process of changing this is the Anglo - Danish Maritime Archaeological Team (ADMAT). Headed by Mr. Simon Spooner, a man with a passion for diving and history, the team navigates the region on a quest to discover some å‘freshå’ history. Caribbean Weekly caught up with the man in question at a recent conference hosted on the pristine Caribbean island of St. Kitts, an island that has kept some of the true Caribbean charm that others have lost to mass tourism. An island teeming with underwater treasures (no not gold), in the form of magnificent shipwrecks.
CW: Tell Caribbean Weekly readers a little about the ADMAT organisation
and the projects that it undertakes?
SS: The Anglo~Danish Maritime Archaeological Team, ADMAT, was set up as a non-profit educational organisation by myself and my Danish partner Christine Nielsen. After working on historic shipwrecks in the Dominican Republic, we realised the great need in the Caribbean, for archaeological work to be carried out on the underwater cultural heritage in the region. Another reason was to enable students to gain first hand practical experience with maritime archaeological field work, something which is very hard for students to find.
CW: You were recently working on a project in St. Kitts, how successful
do you feel the excavation was and what did you gain from the trip?
SS: The ADMAT White House Bay Maritime Archaeological Field School in St. Kitts project was very successful! - In spite of losing half of our personnel and most of our equipment (which was to be loaned to us by the British Army), due to the 2nd Gulf War. ADMAT was determined to keep our promise to St. Kitts and managed to beg and borrow enough to make the project happen on schedule.
A large wreck was exposed by a hurricane in White House Bay some years ago. The wreck was then unfortunately severely looted and the torrido worms have eaten away about 10 % of the exposed part of the wreck since then. So it was imperative that we recorded the wreck before nothing was left and all the information it contained lost forever.
We lived in tents on the shore of White House Bay for 5 weeks, and spent 450 hours underwater surveying, excavating and recording the large wreck right of the beach there. The wreck is the front half (from bow down to about the main mast step which was not found) of a pre 1760`s substantially built ship. I believe this was an English troopship build in the 1740`s and probably survived long enough to take part in the battle of frigate Bay in 1782. We carefully excavated a number of artefacts, including regimental buttons, musket balls, spoons, pot & glass sherds, a bar shot, a pulley wheel and a ruler. These artefacts were handed over to the St. Christopher Heritage Society, who are currently stabilising them with freshwater until such time they can be fully conserved.
This was an important first step in discovering and protecting St. Kitts rich maritime Underwater Cultural Heritage. For our students it was a unique learning experience. For the many Kittians and tourists who visited the site, it was a chance to see how archaeological fieldwork is carried out and to be amongst the first to learn of the information we gathered during the project.
CW: How much support did you receive from the St. Kitts tourism authorities? During a recent interview for Caribbean Weekly Dwyer Astaphan noted the importance of this site for local tourism, how do you expect the discovery to affect the tourism figures to the region?
SS: ADMAT is impressed with St. Kitts interest in and dedication to their Cultural Heritage. We started planning the project with Jacqueline Armony from the St. Christopher Heritage Society. As the project developed the Ministry of Tourism, headed by Minister Dwyer Astaphan, joined in and helped make the project a success.
There is a growing awareness of and interest in Underwater Cultural Heritage world wide. St. Kitts has the foresight to realise the importance of investigating and protecting theirs, to the benefit of tourism as well as the cultural identity of people of St. Kitts.The maritime archaeological excavations themselves, as well as museum displays and the planned conservation laboratory, are highly sort after tourist attractions and is sure to attract many visitors.CW: What has been the most important discovery that your organisation has made since working in the Caribbean?SS: The “Perfume Wreck” or Le Casimir as she was later identified, because of the artefacts found, especially the perfume bottles.
CW: Where do all of the artefacts discovered end up?
SS: The artefacts are displayed in museums, for everyone to enjoy and learn from.
CW: How difficult is it to gain financing for such projects, and how important are the sponsors to your mission? On the other hand, how important for the sponsors can ADMAT be?
SS: Sponsors are absolutely crucial for ADMAT`s projects, it simply would not be possible for us to carry our important work without them. It is a very difficult task to get maritime archaeological field projects financed. This is because they are logistically difficult and expensive, due to all the equipment involved and the fact that we are dealing with an underwater environment… Also, as we of course never sell any artefacts, financial backers can not hope to get any revenue from that. They can however gain in other ways such as very positive PR and tax benefits.
CW: How long have you been diving for?
SS: Since 1980, and I have been an instructor since 1983
CW: How important are projects such as this with regards to the
education of students? What plans does ADMAT have with regards to tuition of
SS: For archaeology students field school projects are crucial, if they are to gain practical experience so they can gain a better and more complete picture of archaeological material and information. It is also very hard for them to ever get a job without it.
For all students at any level, and the general public, projects such as this teaches us about our past, and let us marvel over over ancestors accomplishments.
ADMAT will carry on with our regular field schools. We also plan to develop unique MA course, based largely in the field, with universities.
CW: Where will the team be heading next?
SS: Back to St. Kitts for Phase 2; a survey of Basseterre Harbour, to ascertain the status of the 200+ historic ships that has sunk there according to archives. Also to set up a conservation laboratory, which will conserve any artefacts found on the seabed. It is the plan to make the conservation laboratory as a “working museum”, ie people can visit the lab to see how artefacts are conserved first hand.
CW: The cruise industry is swelling to mammoth proportions in the
Caribbean region (it takes somewhere in the region of 58 percent of worldwide cruise arrivals!), how does this industry affect what you are ultimately attempting to preserve? St Kitts is proposing the extension of its pier to accommodate another two large cruise ships, what will happen if you discover there path is directly above important wreck sites? Can action be taken to move the pier, or will big money simply dictate that the pier goes ahead all the same?
SS: When archaeological finds are in the pathway of new structures there is always a dilemma. What happens depends on the law of the country it found in and of course money! If it is not possible to avoid building on top of an archaeological site, then emergency excavation of the site must be carried out, to ensure that as much information and important artefacts as possible are collected before the site is destroyed. Building of piers, throwing down anchors and prop wash all damage historic shipwrecks, so a growing fleet of large cruise ships is a great concern certainly. We therefore invite the cruise industry to support us in our work, so this sort of damage can be avoided. It is also in the cruise industries interest to support us, because the museum displays and our lectures about these projects are very attractive to cruise passengers/tourists.
CW: What does the future hold for ADMAT, Caribbean Weekly has heard rumours of a live Internet feed so that students can watch live
progress across the globe? Is this going to happen?
SS: Yes that is correct. As announced in the conference ADMAT has teamed up with Vagabond Voyager who specialises in educational live internet link ups. They will be following ADMAT on all our projects around the world. The first event will be on St. Kitts in 2004, where for 3 days they will follow our work while we survey & excavate a shipwreck in Basseterre Bay. For those 3 days we will be working live about 10 hours a day, to ensure that students all over the USA, Caribbean and Europe can follow our work live and ask us questions live. It is free for schools to sign up for this and there is a whole educational package to go with it. it will also be possible for the general public to follow this and it will be broadcast on the Educational channel in the States and possibly other TV-channels around the world. for more information on this have a look at Vagabond Voyagers web-site on http://www.vagabondvoyager.org/page02.htm.
CW: What are the main obstacles when uncovering a new site?
SS: Getting the financial support to do it in the first place! After that it depends on the individual site. Example, if it is a deep site then the limited time that divers can stay on site is a big obstacle, if the site has very low visibility then that is the main obstacle.
CW: Are looters a big problem, if so how do police such pirates?
SS: How looters and treasure hunters are dealt with is very different in different countries. Some countries have strict laws against it and rigorously enforces them, some has a law against it but don`t do much to enforce it, and then there are places where treasure hunting is legal and sometimes even encouraged.
To protect a countries Underwater Cultural Heritage they must have clear laws against it and enforce them. No contracts must be entered with treasure hunters, and also casual looting must be stopped. The wreck sites should be monitored by the Coast Guard, possibly in corporation with local dive operators. Everyone, especially divers, must be told in no uncertain terms about the law and the consequences if they brake it. But very importantly everyone, locals and tourists both, must be educated on the matter - told how important it is to preserve these time capsules that shipwrecks are, they must be informed about why it is so important that they do not take anything from wreck sites, that it would be stealing important puzzles to the past and pieces of a countries maritime cultural heritage.
CW: Finally, was it always your dream to dive on shipwrecks?
SS: Yes, ever since I watched Jacques Costeau and his team on his adventures on TV as a child…
Caribbean Weekly would like to thank Simon for his time and wish him every luck in the future with this incredible project. If you are interested in sponsoring ADMAT in any way, shape or form then head for www.admat.org.uk