Archaeology Jungle

By Fox, Leslie | History Today, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Archaeology Jungle

Fox, Leslie, History Today

|Sittee River 92' was a school expedition made by Trent College last summer to the coastal savannah and tropical forest of southern Belize in Central America. Its original aim was to develop the self reliance and leadership skills of the sixteen-year-olds in the group, and to increase their awareness of cultural and environmental issues in a physically challenging setting. Developing from a sixth former's suggestion to visit the jungle, the trip had initially been conceived as a Combined Cadet Force adventurous training exercise to trek through the jungle and climb a forest-clad peak in the Cockscomb Range. However, a peculiar series of chance events and discoveries was to result in a unique opportunity for |hands on' historical research, and an initiation into the disciplines of industrial archaeology.

Instead of a climbing and trekking exercise, we devised a conservation project in Sittee River Village, a small Creole community not far from the Cockscomb Basin jaguar reserve, to clear a historic site of riverine vegetation, excavate machinery and buildings and to map the site. Because of its industrial history, Belize has some interesting abandoned (and thus far neglected) industrial monuments and sites. These are vital educational assets for the country and represent considerable potential as tourist and recreational attractions. We hoped that the project we planned would not only enhance the environment but bring us into constructive contact with the indigenous people.

The Serpon Sugar Mill, which dates from the end of the last century, was saved from bulldozing by the Belizean Department of Archaeology in 1989, an eleventh hour initiative provoked by several concerned individuals. Important as the site was to national and local history, resources were lacking to progress further than halting its outright destruction. My request to Belizean youth leaders to identify a suitable community service-type task for us to undertake must have come at the right time. Inexperienced as an archaeological team, we were nevertheless willing and cost-free labour. Furthermore, the Sittee River community had its own reasons for wanting to restore the site and our visit would act as a catalyst for local action and a focus for local interest: necessary ingredients for the long term success of the conservation project.

Generating interest at a local level was one thing, gaining approval at national level was another. The early involvement of the Belizean High Commissioner in London and his British counterpart in Belize no doubt played its part in securing for us the necessary permission from the Department of Archaeology to work at the site (an archaeologist from the department would direct and supervise our progress during the two weeks we were there).

The British High Commissioner, David Mackilligan, is a member of the Belize Historical Society so, understandably, was more sympathetic to our aims in visiting Belize than might have been the case were we to have restricted our interests to climbing jungle peaks. I am sure, too, that we gained political, logistic and financial support from both British and Belizean sources because the end result of our project would bring real benefit to the local community as well as the esoteric and educational experiences for ourselves.

The project was funded largely from our own pockets, but would have been unviable without financial and material support from outside the school. The sugar giants, Tate & Lyle plc, donated 500 [pounds] towards the cost of keeping us in the field and the logistic support from the British Army was significant. Despite the recession, help was elicited from many firms and organisations. Funding a venture overseas is hard work but never impossible.

An engineer by education and a mathematics teacher by profession, industrial archaeology is far from my field. I readily admit to being less than suited to leading a project overseas whose prime focus would be the survey and conservation of a late nineteenth-century sugar mill. …

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