Secrets of 18th-century well explored

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Marine archaeologists and volunteers are cleaning and cataloging 18th-century artifacts found in the “George Town Step Well,” which was discovered by National Museum staff in 2003.  

The fresh water step well, which was cut directly into the iron shore, was first discovered after developers began bulldozing land in George Town to make way for what is now the Bayshore Mall. 

“Back in 2003, when they were bulldozing the land and the old buildings on it, they ended up finding lots of historical material – ceramics, glass, and material remains from the past – and they encountered some old step wells where the water was gathered in the early days in the 1700’s,” said Peggy Leshikar-Denton, archaeologist and director of the Cayman Islands National Museum.  

Ms. Leshikar-Denton said the project to clean and identify the items was put on hold when Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 and the artifacts have been bagged in storage since then.  

“Hurricane Ivan happened in the interim, and we weren’t able to catalog all of these things into the museum, so now we’re taking the opportunity to do that,” she said. Two professional marine archaeologists from Florida – Amanda Evans and Della Scott-Ireton – are visiting the island to help with the preservation effort.  

“We’re in the process now of going through the bags and literally washing things, cleaning the dirt off, so that we can get an idea of what was found. And then we will re-bag everything properly and label it, so that it can be analyzed better in the future [and] that it will be in a state where it can be curated for a while,” said Ms. Scott-Ireton, associate director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. 

The step well, which has eight roughly hewn steps leading to a spring-like pool of water that is still deemed potable by the Cayman Islands Water Authority, was a major water source for residents in Hog Sty Bay in the 1700’s. However, it later became a dumping ground due to contamination of the well, archaeologists believe.  

“It looks like the well was filled in with trash … It is not uncommon to find wells with trash in it,” said Ms. Scott-Ireton.  

The step well effectively became a time capsule, containing items from different time periods, including: English slipware [pottery] from 1750, clay smoking pipes and tin glazed enamel wear from the 1700’s, and intact bottles that date from the mid 1800’s to the early 20th century. 

“The mix of time periods is really interesting,” said Ms. Evans. “George Town Harbor has been in use for hundreds of years and so the fact that we have this one particular site that shows so much time within one discrete area is really interesting.” 

Ms. Evans, senior marine archaeologist at survey service company Tesla Offshore, added, “You’ve got older items that were possibly used and reused and newer materials all kind of jumbled together so it gives us a good picture of what was happening off the books, how people were living, the things that don’t necessarily get recorded in history.” 

Members of the public can still view the step well, now preserved under glass, at the Bayshore Mall. 

The two marine archaeologists plan to dive “The Glamis” shipwreck site in East End later this week. The site contains a ship that was built in Scotland in 1876 and wrecked under Norwegian flag in 1913, said Ms. Leshikar-Denton.  

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Glass, pottery, ceramics and animal bones are among the many items found in the George Town step well. – PHOTO: CHRIS COURT

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Archaeologists Amanda Evans, left, and Della Scott-Ireton clean and examine the step-well artifacts. – PHOTO: CHRIS COURT

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