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Illegally enslaved and then marooned on remote Tromelin Island for fifteen years, with only archaeology to tell their story


Monday, September 15, 2014



On the night of July 31, 1761, Jean de Lafargue, captain of the French East India Company ship L’Utile (“Useful”), was likely thinking of riches. In the ship’s hold were approximately 160 slaves purchased in Madagascar just days before and bound for Île de France, known today as Mauritius. It had been 80 years since the dodo had gone extinct on that Indian Ocean island, and the thriving French colony had a plantation economy in need of labor. However, though slavery was legal at the time, de Lafargue was not authorized by colonial authorities to trade in slaves.


According to the detailed account of the ship’s écrivain, or purser, as L’Utile approached the vicinity of an islet then called Île des Sables, or Sandy Island, winds kicked up to 15 or 20 knots. The ship’s two maps did not agree on the small island’s precise location, and a more prudent captain probably would have slowed and waited for daylight. But de Lafargue was in a hurry to reap his bounty. That night L’Utile struck the reef off the islet’s north end, shattering the hull. Most of the slaves, trapped in the cargo holds, drowned, though some escaped as the ship broke apart. The next morning, 123 of the 140 members of the French crew and somewhere between 60 and 80 Malagasy slaves found themselves stranded on Île des Sables—shaken and injured, but alive.


De Lafargue had some kind of nervous breakdown, according to the écrivain. First officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took over, and rallied the crew to salvage food, tools, and timber from the wreck and build separate camps for the crew and the slaves. Under the first officer’s guidance, a well was dug, an oven and furnace built, and work on a new boat begun. Within two months, the makeshift vessel La Providence emerged from the remains of L’Utile. Du Vernet, before he sailed away with the crew, promised the Malagasy people that a ship would return for them. And so they waited. The few that survived waited a very long time.



Indian-Ocean-Map-TromelinThe islet, today called Tromelin Island, lies 300 miles east of Madagascar and 350 miles north of Mauritius. Shaped like a sunflower seed, it is just one-third of a square mile of sand and scrub. Today it hosts an unpaved runway, a staffed weather station, and a wildlife preserve. Hermit crabs swarm across the island in packs at night, and each year hundreds of sea turtles and countless birds arrive to lay their eggs.


Diaries, letters, and the écrivain’s account document the wreck and the two months that the French crew stayed on the island, but the Malagasy castaways left no written records. Their story would have remained almost completely untold but for Max Guérout, a former French navy officer. Guérout had captained an underwater research vessel in the late 1970s, and upon his retirement in the early 1980s founded the Naval Archaeology Research Group (known by its French acronym, GRAN), which has since studied dozens of postmedieval shipwrecks. He heard the Tromelin story from a colleague and, with support from UNESCO, began two years of archival research in 2004. “The history was so interesting that we decided to make an archaeological survey,” he says. Guérout built a team, which included experts from GRAN, the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), and the administration of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, to travel to the isolated islet four times—2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013—for six weeks at a stretch to examine the wreck site, excavate, and learn something about the lives of the Malagasy castaways, lives undocumented by history.


America, in the Beginning

Archaeologists continue their search for evidence of how the vast, once-uninhabited regions of the New World came to be populated


Monday, August 11, 2014



Nearly one billion people today call the Americas home, inhabiting territories that stretch from the wide expanses of Canada and the United States, down through Mexico and Central America, and south through the varied landscapes of South America to Chile—from sparsely populated regions to some of the most crowded cities on the planet. And yet, as recently as 16,000 years ago, there may not have been anyone in these lands at all. Who were the earliest Americans, and how and when did they get here? These are questions that have long fascinated archaeologists and the public alike. As with all scientific endeavors, uncovering the story of how and when people arrived in the Americas will require an accumulation of evidence and data, and will long continue to be subject to revision. Here, then, is where the research has led so far:

Erbil Revealed

How the first excavations in an ancient city are supporting its claim as the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world


Monday, August 11, 2014



The 100-foot-high, oval-shaped citadel of Erbil towers high above the northern Mesopotamian plain, within sight of the Zagros Mountains that lead to the Iranian plateau. The massive mound, with its vertiginous man-made slope, built up by its inhabitants over at least the last 6,000 years, is the heart of what may be the world’s oldest continuously occupied settlement. At various times over its long history, the city has been a pilgrimage site dedicated to a great goddess, a prosperous trading center, a town on the frontier of several empires, and a rebel stronghold.


Yet despite its place as one of the ancient Near East’s most significant cities, Erbil’s past has been largely hidden. A dense concentration of nineteenth- and twentieth-century houses stands atop the mound, and these have long prevented archaeologists from exploring the city’s older layers. As a consequence, almost everything known about the metropolis—called Arbela in antiquity—has been cobbled together from a handful of ancient texts and artifacts unearthed at other sites. “We know Arbela existed, but without excavating the site, all else is a hypothesis,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist John MacGinnis.


Last year, for the first time, major excavations began on the north edge of the enormous hill, revealing the first traces of the fabled city. Ground-penetrating radar recently detected two large stone structures below the citadel’s center that may be the remains of a renowned temple dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. There, according to ancient texts, Assyrian kings sought divine guidance, and Alexander the Great assumed the title of King of Asia in 331 B.C. Other new work includes the search for a massive fortification wall surrounding the ancient lower town and citadel, excavation of an impressive tomb just north of the citadel likely dating to the seventh century B.C., and examination of what lies under the modern city’s expanding suburbs. Taken together, these finds are beginning to provide a more complete picture not only of Arbela’s own story, but also of the growth of the first cities, the rise of the mighty Assyrian Empire, and the tenacity of an ethnically diverse urban center that has endured for more than six millennia.


Located on a fertile plain that supports rain-fed agriculture, Erbil and its surrounds have, for thousands of years, been a regional breadbasket, a natural gateway to the east, and a key junction on the road connecting the Persian Gulf to the south with Anatolia to the north. Geography has been both the city’s blessing and curse in this perennially fractious region. Inhabitants fought repeated invasions by the soldiers of the Sumerian capital of Ur 4,000 years ago, witnessed three Roman emperors attack the Persians, and suffered the onslaught of Genghis Khan’s cavalry in the thirteenth century, the cannons of eighteenth-century Afghan warlords, and the wrath of Saddam Hussein’s tanks only 20 years ago. Yet, through thousands of years, the city survived, and even thrived, while other once-great cities such as Babylon and Nineveh crumbled.






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