Locals Shirley Osborne and Vaughn Barzey were hiking on the Caribbean island of Montserrat this past January when they saw some carvings on a moss-covered rock face. They reported their discovery to the authorities. Volunteers with the Montserrat National Trust, archaeology professors and students from universities in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean studied the carvings in the hills near the town of Soldier Ghaut (Ghaut means “abrupt ravine” in Montserratian) about five miles north of the capital city of Plymouth. Officials kept the find under wraps until researchers confirmed that they were indeed ancient petroglyphs, the first ever discovered on Montserrat.
They are stylistically similar to petroglyphs made by the indigenous Amerindians (commonly referred to as the Arawaks, archaeologically known as the Saladoid culture) on Caribbean island like St. Kitts, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, among others.
“We have Amerindian artifacts on the island, but had not seen petroglyphs,” said Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust. “These are the first, that we know of, that have been found here.”
Initial analysis suggests Montserrat’s petroglyphs are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, Francis said, though carbon dating will paint a clearer picture of the images’ origins.
The petroglyphs consist of geometric shapes and what may be stylized animal or human figures. One figure could be a bat. Another with two deep circles cut from the stone and a line underneath is more than a little reminiscent of a rudimentary face design. The mouth doesn’t turn up at the corners, but it still manages to look like a smiley face.
The earliest artifacts found on the island long predate the Arawaks. Flint blades, flakes and other evidence of knapping about 2,500 years old have been found in the central hills of Montserrat and judging from the style and technology of the lithic materials, archaeologists believe the first settlers came from South America between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago. This Archaic, pre-ceramic culture was displaced with the arrival of the Arawak between 500 and 300 B.C. who settled Montserrat until they in turn were displaced by the raiding Caribs (also known as the Kalinago). By the time the Spanish arrived, the Awarak had left the island and the Caribs do not appear to have settled it. The next wave of settlers came in 1642 and were predominantly Irish.