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Interview: Coastal caving: archeological investigations in Caribbean Antilles caves by Michael J. Lace

Coastal caving: archeological investigations in Caribbean Antilles caves, by Michael J. Lace

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Currently living in the state of Iowa in the Unites States, Michael J. Lace has more than 35 years of experience caving in the sates. Twenty of those years have also been dedicated to the exploration, cartography and the study of the geomorphology of the coastal caves in the Caribbean region and the Bahamas Archipelago. This caver and retired science researcher for the University of Iowa, has a vast collection of professional published papers about the geological origins of coastal caves and the human experiences evidenced there. Organized explorations with other fellow cavers and academics had made him encounter with thousands of years old human manifestations registered in the caves since pre Colombian times. The systematic study and documentation of the rock art in those Caribbean caves embraces this conversation. 

He has been actively involved in cave exploration and multidisciplinary cave studies in conjunction with public and private land trusts, government agencies and private landowners within the United States and abroad since 1986. Lace currently serves as the Executive Director of the Coastal Cave Survey (CCS) a non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration, study and preservation of coastal cave and karst resources. The CCS specializes in island coastal cave exploration, karst landscape archaeology and coastal speleogenesis. In an exploration visit during the summer of 2019 to Puerto Rico, Subterránea had the opportunity to talk to Lace about his latest investigations concerning rock art in the Caribbean.

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Mike, during the last years you have been working in the development of the Coastal Cave Survey, can you talk a bit about its origins?

- MIKE LACE - Several years ago other researchers in the Caribbean and I were interest on starting a broader group that will integrate a lot of fields like geology, biology, archeology, anthropology, and paleontology to focus on caves that appear in costal margins not only continental, but in the smaller islands as well. There is a lack of focus on those caves, because most of them are small. They are not big caves systems that are attracted to explorers. These are not high profile caves in many respects. But never the less, there is no minimum for a cave to be important geologically or archaeologically or biologically to us. 

 - SUBTERRÁNEA – The effort of the CCS on those types of coastal caves, has it paid off?
- MIKE LACE - What we suspected and have found is that these caves are a rich repository of human culture, biological diversity and geological which we are still trying to understand. Before the CCS it did not existed a whole database for coastal caves. We have been working in the Bahamas for 20 years, some other colleagues more.

- SUBTERRÁNEA - Does cave geomorphology play a role in the creation and location of rock art?
- MIKE LACE - Based on the work we have done so far, we are beginning to understand that cave morphology plays a roll in where rock art is placed and where is not. There really is not a specific rock art technic that we have identified that is associated with any specific cave type. But in many areas it was not just the availability of caves that translated into rock art placement. The criteria which we still do not fully understand, were more specific, and much more deterministic. Even though the taíno and other cultures did not understand geomorphology as much as we do, still there were attributes to those cave that drove them to those spaces to generate the rock art. And not only for just one period but through out history of cave use there were attributes of those caves that brought humans into them to do both ritual and practical activities. 

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Michael J. Lace is a respected cave cartographer. How do you incorporate your mapping to your coastal caves and rock art investigations?
- MIKE LACE - Cartography is a critical tool in the form of a cave map. That can occur in many forms like a 2D or 3D representation of the same cave. Unless you have that geo reference structure for that site, you cannot begin to fully understand why the rock art was placed here and not there or how this site differs from every other site that does or does not have rock art. So whether it has cultural material or not, we map all caves to the same detail. We incorporate not only cultural materials but also biological diversity and the geological profile. All of those have to be integrated into the final map. That map will be use as a platform for any other studies you want to do in that particular site.

- SUBTERRÁNEA – In his 2019 publication titled Ship Graffiti on the Islands of the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and Puerto Rico: A Comparative Analysis, Lace compares different types of manifestations of ship graffiti in the Caribbean. What is the difference between the locations of the ship graffiti art of the Bahamas and Puerto Rico?
- MIKE LACE - We found that in the Bahamas there is little modern historic ship graffiti in caves. In fact, there is only one cave in the entire Bahamas on over seven hundred islands and more than eight hundred caves that has ship graffiti. That is very different from Isla de Mona (Puerto Rico) where all the ship graffiti occurs in the caves. Partly because there are not a lot of historic structures on Mona that has surfaces you could use. We have to see how these caves were use. In Mona you had a very intense human presence on the Island during the guano-mining period. Where you had a lot of people working in these spaces and we think must of it was generated by the miners. But again we do not know for sure, because there was so much human activity in the pre-history of Mona where the taíno and older cultures where coming in and using the caves for different purposes. So we cannot say some of these ship graffiti examples might not be older than the guano-mining period. Bahamas is much simpler because most of the ship graffiti occurs in colonial structures and there is a very definite day of when the colonial period was. 

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Who do you think were the authors and in what type of structures in the Bahamas is the ship graffiti rock art?

- MIKE LACE - Most of them appear to be generated by people whom were slaves working in the plantations because they appear in places that they would have used, like kitchens. But also by people that were in confinement in colonial structures like prisons, where either guards or prisoners on the facility did them. Some marks are inside a cell and others were found outside. The most recent development in the Bahamas is that there is also ship graffiti in quarantine facilities that were use to prevent cholera and typhus from spreading. All of these have made us compare Bahamas and Puerto Rico to begin to understand the cultural context and apply it to the rest of the Caribbean region and we think all will fit into that model. But with any good model, with the more data we find, the more we can refine the model to make it more accurate. 

 - SUBTERRÁNEA - At what extent the graphic expression of ships in all the sites studied, including caves in Mona, might represent an act of resistance by their authors?

- MIKE LACE - This is an emerging theory at this point, but the data we have so far, suggests that the cultural context of those segments of society, the authors that made the ship graffiti, they were gentrified, they were cast within a structure of colonial system. Some of these examples of ship graffiti might well be acts of resistance consistent with what other people have seen in other islands in the Caribbean too. They used whatever they had available to work with to express themselves. It was in a very confine structure socially and it was a few avenues they had available for them to be creative and express their culture, or their experience. And in terms of ship graffiti and maritime cultures across the region, ships were a manifestation of that huge change and social oppression to some degree. It was not just the middle passage phenomenon where the slaves were brought from Africa who were traumatized, but it was every day life. They were experiencing it cause they saw ships coming and going. Ships were bringing their people here and sometimes taking them away. It was a daily experience through work, the commodities they got from the ships that made ship graffiti a singular representation of potentially of that resistance. But again is an emerging theory, but it is a place to start. 

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Based on your field experience through out the Caribbean, is there evidence of human presence in caves and the making of rock art past colonial times?
- MIKE LACE- It is a complex question. To go backwards in terms of where it persisted more in the Antilles, we still do not know yet because the rock art record is very incomplete. But the emerging story is demonstrating that in places like Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic rock art was being applied over not only centuries but also thousands of years. In terms of rock art persisting into the current day, Haiti stands out among the other countries on the Caribbean region right now as having very dynamic ritual activities that persisted in the same cave sites, culture after culture over thousands of years. They are still using it in modern voodoo rituals, which include rock art and other art forms associated with their ceremonies.

- SUBTERRÁNEA - How vulnerable is the rock art you have observed in the coastal caves in the Caribbean Antilles?

- MIKE LACE - Unfortunately we are losing the integrity of archeological sites in the Caribbean at an alarming rate. Most of it due to human causes, although natural causes like hurricanes in the region can also affect some rock art sites. I think there is a sense of urgency that is not fully appreciated by every management agency of the government on a regional scale. Partly because they do not have all the data to understand just how vulnerable this cultural material is. But sadly there are some examples like with the ship graffiti on colonial structures that is being lost so rapidly that is not a matter or decades or centuries to be lost, it is a matter of a few years that it will be completely lost. For example in the Bahamas some of these images are scratched on wet plaster of colonial walls but that plaster deteriorates and it peels away from the wall. In some cases the sense of urgency is even greater. But again is about having the information available so you can make smart decisions on how to save as much as you can and as efficiently as you can. 

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Are there any database or records in the countries you visit or anywhere, that helps on the study of rock art in caves?
- MIKE LACE – It is a persistent problem unfortunately across the region. In many areas the documentation is incomplete or all together absent especially when it comes to caves. Because in some areas there is no organized cave exploration or history cave studies, consequently there is no inventory to draw on to do future studies. There are exceptions, of course, like in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. They have inventories of rock art that sometimes have been done multiple times at the same places over the decades by different people collecting the data. And these have proven enormously helpful but they are not complete. We do not have a complete picture of how many rock art sites are, how many are in caves, how many are on the surface or the nature of the rock art in all these sites. There is a lot more work to do, not only in the mentioned islands, but all across the Caribbean region.

- SUBTERRÁNEA – It looks like an ambitious project to do. One that requires a lot of collaboration to document the coastal caves of so many different and distant places from Iowa. Is there any collaboration between the local cavers and the CCS? 

- MIKE LACE - Working with local cueveros (cavers) wherever we go is a key component of getting the work done. And that translates into working with archeologists, which have a specific interest on the caves and rock art. Ultimately what we hope is to set a collaborative network between scientists, cavers, non-scientists and local residents who know often more about their landscape than anyone else. To be effective you have to integrate all those participants to really get an effective database up and running. 

- SUBTERRÁNEA – Mike, we in Subterránea thank you for your time and for sharing with the Spanish people and the international reader your speleological investigations on the Caribbean Antilles. We will follow on the findings and the work you develop further on with other Caribbean and international cavers. ¡Gracias, Mike!

Original audios:

Interview by Tamara González, Manuel Güivas, Gemma Morraja y Oscar Sicilia.

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