Archaeology at Virgin Islands National Park

The Annaberg Plantation ruins are the best-preserved on the island, and a stop there is worth an hour or two at least. At the height of its operation, in the late-18th century, it was one of more than two dozen sugar plantations in production on St. John.

The Park Service has done a good job of stabilizing the ruins, which you can find on the mountainside above Leinster Bay. They consist of a windmill, horsemill, boiling house, garden, and enslaved laborers’ cabins. To learn more about efforts to preserve the ruins, and to see computerized modeling of them, visit this site at the University of Maine. A nearly 12-megabyte, 215-page PDF that traces the history of Annaberg can be found here.

Not as sprawling nor as spectacular as the Annaberg ruins are the Catherineberg ruins off Centerline Road, which provide another perspective of the 18th century plantation life on the island. Trees and other vegetation are slowly reclaiming this site, but the main ruin -- the stone remains of a windmill -- is well-preserved and worth a walk around, and through. A wide stone-built ramp leads up into the mill.

While enjoying the warm Caribbean waters is the main reason many head to Virgin Islands National Park, a wonderful diversion from a day at the beach can be spent in search of ancient cultures that once visited the island. Traces of their visits can be found down the Reef Bay Trail (see hiking section) on the south side of the island.

Reef Bay Petroglyphs, Virgin Islands NPSAbout halfway down the 3-mile-long trail, on a short spur trail on your right that leads to a spring-fed pool of water, is a 20-foot-long panel of carvings chiseled into the face of blue basalt. The facial images were carved by Taino artisans or shamans and are thought to be links to the culture's dead. This was not the only place on the island visited by the Taino culture, as archaeological research at Trunk and Cinnamon bays on the park’s northern shore unearthed ceremonial artifacts dating to roughly 900 AD.

Central to the appearance of many of the petroglyphs along the Reef Trail are bats. Park archaeologist Ken Wild tells us that the “ceramic faces are the dead as indicated by the fruit bat nose on the human face, as the petroglyphs also represent the faces of their dead ancestors or, if you like, the faces from their supernatural world.”

In some images a bundle beneath the face is representative of a wrapped body.

“That the circles around the eyes, found on many petroglyphs, are skeletal orbits of the dead, as suggested by Roe 1997, certainly appears obvious when compared to the Taino skeletal amulets of carved shell,” Mr. Wild wrote in a 2004 paper, Understanding the Petroglyphs. “What the findings in the archaeological record of St. John additionally indicate is that connection between the worship of the dead elite and the significant role that the bat plays in this culture’s social development. It is this same connection that also helps us to understand even more about the petroglyphs and why they were carved in certain places.”

Why were petroglyphs carved into the stone slab above the pool of water along the Reef Bay Trail? Mr. Wild solved this mystery while taking an evening dip in a pool overlooking Congo Cay. As evening arrived so did swarms of bats darting here and there over the surface of the water to feed on insects. That experience prompted the archaeologist to send a friend to the Reef Bay location with a digital infrared camera at sundown.

“He captured some of the most fascinating footage: bats circling the pool with the petroglyphs as the backdrop,” notes Mr. Wild. “There it was, a simple answer: petroglyphs were carved where their ancestors gather, whether caves or water pools; a place to come and communicate with their ancestors in order to make it rain, cure the sick, and in general insure a healthy and prosperous community."