Lasers and Caribbean potters

Pottery analysis provides new perspective on Caribbean prehistory.

Until recently, the archaeology of the Caribbean was very much a byway of the human past (see issue 2 of this magazine for more). But, in recent years, the tempo of research has accelerated, with some 7,000 islands to explore and clear evidence that people have navigated Caribbean waters for at least 7,000 years.


Unfortunately, traces of inter-island voyaging are hard to identify, given that wooden canoes are highly perishable. Fieldworkers have long used pottery as a substitute but, though the potsherds are durable, the designs executed in clay provided insufficient data.


So, researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History turned to lasers to etch microscopic lines into the sample potsherds. These enabled them to identify the exact amounts and identities of each element in the clay used to make the vessels. Even the smallest potsherd fragments contain the elemental signatures of their places of origin.


In the end, the team examined the composition of 96 fired clay fragments from across 11 islands from the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The study showed that these ‘Lucayan’ islands were only occupied temporarily at first, as people living on larger islands to the south sought raw materials. Cuba was the closest larger island, but in fact, the analysis showed that the northwest coast of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) was the main cultural hub. The Lucayan island soils were too grainy, so Hispaniola was the main pottery trading partner in a relationship that endured for centuries.


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Image credit: Florida Museum; pottery examples photographed by Kristen Grace.