Volunteers piecing together Cayman’s past

Volunteers Michelle Coles, left, and Amy Peccarino Palmer spend Mondays piecing together material gathered in 2003 from the step well below Bayshore Mall. – PHOTO: MARK MUCKENFUSS

The journeys collide on a table littered with shards of plates and pottery in a room at the Cayman Islands National Museum.

There are so many stories, it’s hard to keep track.

There’s the museum director whose background as an underwater archaeologist brought her to the Cayman Islands nearly four decades ago and who jumped at the chance to excavate material from an old step well uncovered during the construction of Bayshore Mall.

A museum volunteer whose own dream of underwater archaeology fizzled, but who feels she has been given a new opportunity to pursue her passion for history.

A high school student anxious to uncover some of the remnants of her own culture.

And the mysteries held in the bits and pieces of crockery – some dating back to the 1700s – once packed into a well that provided water for some of George Town’s residents, but which had fallen out of use.

The well was discovered in 2003, when bulldozers were clearing the land for what is now the Bayshore Mall. A dark patch of ground provided some tell-tale signs.

“We found bits of blown-glass bottles,” said museum director Peggy Leshikar-Denton, who was on site at the time. “That’s when we got their ear to get them to stop.”

Ms. Leshikar-Denton was the museum archaeologist at the time. She had come to the Cayman Islands in 1980 to help survey the shipwrecks dotting the coastal reefs. In 1986, she moved here permanently. One of her contributions was to identify the Norwegian ship, the August, as the likely ship known as the Red Tile Wreck that lies off East End.

At the Bayshore Mall site, she and other museum workers and volunteers were given time by developers to excavate the site. Workers found broken plates, cups, whole bottles and other material. They identified three levels of artifacts which were put into boxes for later sorting. There was more stuff than the museum could handle.

“We were overwhelmed,” Ms. Leshikar-Denton said, so the boxes, along with photographs and documents were placed, for time being, in the museum basement. “And then we had Hurricane Ivan.”

The basement flooded. Records were damaged. The project was put on hold.

Other than a couple of days when volunteer school children were invited to come and help wash the flood debris from the ceramic and glass bits, not much happened with cataloging the material from the well until last fall. That is when volunteers Michelle Coles and Amy Peccarino Palmer opened the long-dormant collection and dove in.

For weeks, they painstakingly labeled every shard as a Level 1, 2 or 3 piece. After that they set out to see how many of the pieces they could put together. Each Monday, they sit at tables scattered with chips of blue-edged plates, handles missing their cups and floral-stamped ceramic fragments of indeterminate origin.

It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle with a lot of missing pieces and no picture on the box for reference, said Ms. Coles, 41, who studied archaeology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, before coming to Cayman in 2005. She had visions of doing underwater work, just as Ms. Leshikar-Denton had done. And while she did “lots and lots of diving,” it did not involve uncovering artifacts.

A little over a year ago, she said, “I got the nerve to contact Dr. Peggy.”

She was hoping for a job at the museum, but no positions were open. They talked about the collection from the step well, however, and while it took until October to get a schedule lined up, Ms. Coles said she is glad to once again be doing work in her chosen field.

“I feel I’m finally back on the road I should be on,” she said.

About the same time, she started sifting through the material, Ms. Peccarino Palmer, 17, a student at Cayman Prep, showed up as a volunteer.

“I want to study history,” she said. “I thought [museum work] would help me learn more about Cayman history.”

Together, they have uncovered some stories of the past, most of which are only hinted at. Ms. Peccarino Palmer is focused on reconstructing as much of a tea set as she can, convinced that the remnants she has so far been able to match up once belonged to a single family. Ms. Coles is fascinated by personal markings on two plates for which she has found parts of the center portions.

“These two pieces,” she said, showing their reversed sides, “someone carved their initials on the bottom. These might be the personally carved initials of someone’s great, great, grandfather or grandmother. It would be great for me to figure out who it was. Maybe [the descendents] know the story of why they carved their initials.”

It’s these kinds of connections that fascinate her, she said.

She picked up a plate that is about one-quarter reconstructed. It is decorated with the white and blue Asian-inspired motif known as Willow pattern. She recounted the legend connected with the plate, a story of star-crossed, ill-fated Chinese lovers that was created and promoted by one of the English manufacturers that began producing the line in the late 18th century. She and Ms. Leshikar-Denton believe the plate probably dates from the mid- to late 1800s and typifies much of what they have.

“A lot of this is probably English,” Ms. Leshikar-Denton said, picking through some pieces from the lower level of the well. “But a lot of it is not. This blue-green basin, it’s Spanish and dates to the 1780s.”

She shows off a more rustic piece of pottery with some colorful glazing around the edge.

This and other pieces, she said, show the variety of utilitarian items that came to the island as people from various regions of the Old World stayed or settled in Cayman.

Ms. Peccarino Palmer said it has broadened her perspective on Cayman history, adding that what she learned in school was limited.

“We learned how it was founded,” she said of the Cayman Islands, “but we didn’t learn much after that. I kind of didn’t realize so many different people were living here [over time].”

Ms. Coles said she thinks that kind of perspective should be shared by more people. It is one of the things that motivates her to sort, separate and, hopefully, connect the disparate pieces of a sliver of Cayman’s past.

“I have an affection for the country and the Cayman people,” Ms. Coles said, “and a professional respect for the present culture and all the culture in the past. I just really wanted to do my part to give them a bigger picture of where they came from, something they might be able to connect with on a personal level.

“We all deserve a sense of identity to connect with,” she added. “It’s important for the people of Cayman to know who they are.

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