Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Beachfront Bonanza Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Pamela S. Turner

[image]Objects such as this molded figure, once attached to a ceremonial vessel, suggest a popular Caribbean beach may have once been the site of a Taino temple. (Courtesy National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

Caribbean archaeology? Most imagine a drowned galleon's treasure, but on a popular beach in St. John National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands, archaeologist Ken Wild found something far rarer: a Precolumbian Taino temple, or caney, dated to between 1020 and 1490. "We think this is the first time we've recognized a Taino temple," says Wild, who calls the Cinnamon Bay site "not only regionally, but internationally significant." The Taino--inhabitants of the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands--were the first Americans to meet Columbus, and the first to find that encounter catastrophic. They lived in large villages governed by chiefs and worshiped zemis, spirits of gods or ancestors embodied in ceramic and stone, which they placed in caneys.

The excavation began in July 1998 in an effort to recover as much as possible before the site was washed away by the sea. Wild discovered postholes and unusually tidy layers of objects associated with the Taino elite, zemi-related artifacts, and broken ceremonial vessels with what appear to be food offerings. Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote in the sixteenth century about how the Taino placed annual first-fruit offerings in caneys. Wild believes the neat, sequential layers found at Cinnamon Bay represent the accumulation of almost 600 years of such ceremonies.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America