At the crossroads of oral history and archaeology

a photo of the early 19th or late 18th century bath house hotel in bath village, nevis. the photo is taken from a low angle with trees framing the hotel situated up on the small hill.

When I was first started my MA Public History at Western told about the possibility of working on the Bath Springs, Nevis Oral History Project back in… what, August 2022? Time flies. Anyways, I was very excited by the chance to combine storytelling and archaeology. I’ve been involved in both types of projects separately in the past, with the Vision SoHo Project and the Gabii Project respectively. I’ve subconsciously been wanting to explore the potential of the two working together in the field, and have pondered how I might be able to do something similar to this for my own research. If you know me and are familiar with my research interests, British colonialism sits amongst anti-colonialism, archaeology, public archaeology, and many more. Many of these were mentioned in the early stages of this opportunity being presented and I was drawn in from the start.

I’ve been working on this project since January this year under my co-supervisors, Dr. Neal Ferris from the Department of Anthropology (Archaeology) and Dr. Michelle Hamilton from the Department of History (Public History). In 2019, Dr. Ferris received a SSHRC grant to study the historical archaeology of the bath stream, Bath Village, and Gallows Bay in Nevis in service of the Nevis Historical & Conservation Society and local heritage more broadly. Since beginning of my time on this project, I’ve supported the application for Research Ethics Board approval, received approval, created an oral history toolkit to support building local capacity, recruited participants, and conducted interviews. A lot of this took place back in London, Ontario, but this month I had the opportunity to travel to Nevis and work in the community.

The bathing pools in the Bath Stream in May 2023 adjacent to the parking lot and Bath House-Hotel.

Upon first arriving in Nevis, our team received a thorough driving tour of Nevis and its heritage, hosted by Dr. Ferris. He familiarised us with the local landscape and his work thus far—paying particular attention to the Bath House-Hotel and its surroundings in Bath Village. Whilst the community is seemingly small and quiet today, the locals are quick to convey that Bath Village was once a thriving town that raised many of Nevis’ first significant public figures and was the economic hub of the island. The Bath House-Hotel is famed as the first intentional tourism hotel in the Caribbean, dating approximately to 1800, give or take twenty years. Its location was prime considering its proximity to the the bath stream, the significance of which lays in its capacity to heal. There have been numerous accounts over the past centuries that swear to its ability to heal a variety of issues, from wounds to diseases.

The local owner of the towel rental and bathing supplies shop beside the Bath Stream, Mrs. Eldaria Jones, has expressed a keen interest in the project and has played a key role in recruitment and local support. The village and the stream have been significant both throughout her life and the lives of her ancestors. Whilst her story is unique, there are many common themes that emerge between her narrative and other locals who have been interviewed thus far. They all attest to the healing and wellness powers of the stream and the immense importance that this piece of land has been throughout Nevis’ long history.

Of course, though, oral history is never as simple as it seems from the start. Storytelling is an organic process that is so deeply human and therefore is usually unpredictable. Being a public historian requires a high degree of flexibility and willingness to go with the flow. Oral history takes full advantage of that. And for somebody like myself who enjoys a bit of spontaneity and unpredictability, it’s a joy. I try to approach every interview with the same comfort and familiarity of sitting at my grandfather’s dining room table and asking him about his youth in Malta—letting myself find that comfort allows me to open up better as the interviewer and to have a more organic flow to the interview. Interviews where the interviewer is genuinely engaged always sounds better to a researcher, and they definitely feel better to a participant.

On the subject of flexibility and unpredictability, you truly never know who will take an interest and how their perspective can cause you to have to rework much of your approach. I wasn’t expecting such a wide interest from local fishermen for interviews, but their interest prompted our team to spend an afternoon crafting a new series of questions specifically for their experiences, since questions for them would be different than those targeting frequent bathers.

How does this connect to the archaeology of the site? Dr. Ferris’ archaeological study of this area focuses on developing a better understanding of the broader cultural landscape. Unearthing and studying the material culture of the Bath House-Hotel and its surroundings can shed light on the ever-changing nature of Nevis’ history and identity. For a site that lacks a thorough documentary and archival record, material culture provides many opportunities, such as

the artec leo 3d scanner (a approximately 30cm tall white machine with a black base and white top with a touch screen) on a wooden table with a rim fragment of indigenous saladoid ceramic
The Artec Leo 3D scanner beside a rim fragment of Kalingo Saladoid pottery dating approximately from 200-700 AD
  • reconstructing an idea of what the setting looked like;
  • understanding what the material experience consisted of;
  • analysing the spatial relationships between artifacts, structures, and features to gain insights into how people lived, worked, and interacted;
  • providing the local community with ownership, pride, and connection to the past;
  • enabling comparative studies between different regions or time periods to draw comparisons, identify patterns, and better understand regional or global trends;
  • and more, of course.

What’s more is that archaeology provides an opportunity to make history personal through tactile and sensory experiences that are otherwise out of reach. As an autistic person who also has ADHD, the ability to connect with the past through materials and therefore obtain a sensory experience is what first made me believe a career within history might’ve been an option for me.

a screenshot of a 3D scanned rim sherd of Kalingo Saladoid pottery
Kalingo Saladoid pottery scan in Microsoft 3D Builder

Using the Artec Leo 3D scanner, Dr. Ferris and I began 3D scanning artefacts from the local archaeological collection, to be eventually 3D printed in St. Kitts. I am very excited to see where this leads and how much more accessible this will make archaeology and heritage for locals. The innovation in heritage that is taking place with these projects feels incredibly powerful to watch—I could see the potential for these projects, both archaeological and oral histories, unfolding right before me. The impact this will have on local curricula and the future of heritage is really inspiring, especially for an emerging professional like myself. I feel like there are a lot of skills and ideas that I took away from this experience and will be able to play with in the future.

Stay tuned! I’m certain there’s to be a lot of exciting news coming from Nevis.

About the Author

Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich

MA Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.

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