Nova Scotians help find secrets of the past in Cuban soil

Maritime students are uncovering artifacts from the Angerona Coffee Plantation, a national historic site in Cuba, illuminating the lives of slaves forced to work there.

Archaeology trip unearths a possible shackle key, jewelry and coins

The watchtower and gate to the slave barracks on the former Angerona coffee plantation in Havana Province, Cuba. (Submitted by Aaron Taylor)

The discovery of what could be a key to a slave's shackle brought a hush over the group of archaeologists and students excavating a coffee plantation in Cuba this month.

The small artifact was a sombre reminder of what life was like for some 450 slaves on the Angerona Coffee Plantation, a national historic site about 80 kilometres east of Havana.

This is most likely a shackle key, one of about 400 artifacts unearthed by archaeologists at a former coffee plantation in Cuba. (Submitted by Aaron Taylor)

"It was important that everyone understands that this is a place where horrible things happened. It's a difficult story to tell, but a very important story to tell," said Aaron Taylor, a professor at Saint Mary's University, who helped organize the two-week archaeological dig in Cuba.

He and 12 students from four Maritime universities arrived back in Nova Scotia over the weekend with photographs of about 400 artifacts. The most interesting are the intimate items such as necklaces and coins, said Taylor. 

Aaron Taylor said this perforated 1861 coin was probably worn as a necklace. (Submitted by Aaron Taylor)

"The coin was really a great find," he said. "It just tells a story that people were trying to make the best of a very horrible situation, and someone took the time to make a piece of jewelry either for a gift or for themselves."

Analyzing hundreds of photos

The team from Nova Scotia partnered with Cuban archeologists and students.

For two weeks beginning June 3, they spent 11 hours a day carefully digging for clues on the plantation and around the slave owner's mansion. In addition to personal items, they found ceramics, which help date the site back to 1813, said Taylor. 

The students photographed what they found because the artifacts belong to the Cuban government and must stay there.

Photos of the artifacts, including a home-made iron hammer, are now being analyzed by archaeologists in Nova Scotia and Cuba. (Submitted by Aaron Taylor)

Taylor and archaeologists in Cuba are already at work analyzing the photographs. They'll compare notes and eventually write a paper together that begins to tell the story of the slaves who lived and died there.

Secrets under the soil

Raul Mesa, with the Cabinet of Archeology in Cuba, said his first time working with Canadian archaeologists was "an amazing experience," especially since Taylor and his team brought with them state-of-the-art technology.

"This could contribute to help us finding out some of the secrets hidden beneath the soil in the Angerona Coffee plantation," Mesa told CBC's Information Morning earlier this month.

"Eventually those who were once upon a time marginalized, all of those who have shed blood and the tears in that coffee plantation will actually have a voice," he said. 

Another trip next year

More than 50 university students applied to go on the trip, the first in a five-year project.

Lauren Berry, a 23-year-old history student from Dalhousie University, said it was a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience with history.

Twelve students from Dalhousie University, Saint Mary's University, Memorial University and the University of New Brunswick went to Cuba from June 3-17. (Submitted by Aaron Taylor)

On the first day her team found an old handle, which may have been from a cooking pot.

"That was the moment for me that really stuck out where I remember it's like, whoa, people used to live here, we're really finding things. It wasn't just digging in the dirt. It was real. It happened." 

With the help of a translator, the students from Nova Scotia communicated with the Cuban archeologists and learned a little Spanish, too. 

Berry said she hopes to join the group next year when students revisit the same site and search for more clues. 

With files from CBC's Information Morning