Field research: Esthersrust


In January, three students from the faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University, Amber IJsveld, Emma Körnmann and Isabella Wlaznik together with their Professor Martijn Manders, visited Suriname to do fieldwork at the former plantation Esthersrust. They met with students and alumni from the Anton de Kom University of Suriname. The aim was to monitor the former plantation site, which is threatened by changing sea levels due to climate change, to document the site by selecting objects that were being washed away by the ocean, and to compare new data with the previous years of collected data. 

The project leader Santosch Singht with three students on each side.
Image: Esthersrust-project
Students with Surinamese project leader Santosh Singh in the middle at the opening of the Esthersrust exhibition: katoen aan de kust (cotton on the coast). (Left to right: Amber, Agir, Isabella, Santosh, Sushmeeta, Emma and Darren)

Reaching Esthersrust

On our real first day we got on the boats and travelled to Alliance, a local village on the site of a former sugar plantation. Here we engaged with the community. The Surinam students took the lead by interviewing locals and listening to the stories they had to tell. Our aim was to understand if and how the site of Esthersrust plays into a personal understanding of heritage and connection to the past. It was  eye-opening to hear how people can have such different perceptions of an archaeological site and what heritage can mean to them. Additionally, it was interesting to learn about the history of the village of Alliance and how it changed since it was used as a plantation.

The next morning in Bakkie, we woke up early and got onboard the boats once again feeling excited and full of anticipation. After a while, we reached the Warappa Canal which is a man-made extension between the Atlantic Ocean and the plantations and allowed for a further spread of arable land. The area was more open due to the saltwater from the ocean soaking into the soil which the natural vegetation could not withstand. This eerie landscape with tall dead trees looming out of the darkness took us along the final part of our boat trip. Reaching the end of the Warappa Canal, we had reached the ocean. Here we had our first glimpse of the site that we had travelled so far to reach: Esthersrust.

This close to the ocean, cotton was the only crop that could successfully grow on the former plantation. The site was abandoned and eventually inundated by the sea, at least for most hours of the day. 

Image: ©Esthersrust project / Amber IJsveld
Drawing with next to it a shard depicting the presidential palace referred to as Graman Hoso.

Monitoring Esthersrust

The following morning we returned to the plantation site. As we reached the ocean, the sun was rising and an orange-red glow spread across the water. Today was the lowest tide, meaning the best view of the archaeological features and any finds. As we divided into groups, a few of us began with global-positioning (GPS) of the visible tile floors and walls of remaining buildings, as well as the high tide coastline in order to record the destruction of the building remains and the erosion of the protective cover that the coast provides to the non-visible part of the site. Others walked around the site and scanned the area for special finds which included the head of a pochi-globi, a lead sculpture of a man, a portrait of a person eating bread, intricately decorated clay pipes and various beads. We were also able to see the remains of the plantation bridge.

As our last day in Bakkie dawned, we prepared for our final trip to Esthersrust. Being able to leave slightly later as the tide times changed, a boat from Paramaribo with other visitors as well as a drone recorder met us at Bakkie and we divided between boats. On our last day in going to Estersrust we, once again, beached the boat on the edge of the site, which had now become the normal morning routine. We continued to GPS buildings, ensuring we took flags with us as we were aiming to collect many complete bottles from different periods and other key artefacts. One group global positioned buildings, while the other measured the lengths between posts. Meanwhile, drone images of the site were made above our heads. The labelling, photographing and positioning of artefacts was our main focus, as we took samples of bottles and tiles, and adding finds such as beads, a carved wooden chair leg, and pieces of pottery showing the Presidential Palace. Finally, we photographed the nearby make-shift huts which had been used by fishermen. As the tide came back in and Esthersrust was flooded again, we said goodbye and returned to the boats. 

Processing and exhibition

After our week at Bakkie and Esthersrust we were back in Paramaribo to start processing our finds and select objects for the exhibition. This took place at the department of Archaeological Services in Paramaribo, part of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and located next to the famous Palmentuin (Garden of Palms). 

We cleaned, registered and selected the objects from Esthersrust we found and did the same for objects from previous expeditions. Within a week we managed to prepare more than 200 objects to represent the story of Esthersrust at the exhibition. These objects varied from bricks, tiles, iron tools and many glass bottles to finely decorated pottery, beads and coins. 

The exhibition

To further enrich the exhibition, we were asked to make contextual posters. Between the students from both universities we divided four subjects discussing heritage, archaeology, the features at Esthersrust, and the future of this archaeological site. Additionally, we provided the exhibition with photos from all expeditions to Esthersrust and rewrote a script for a privously made documentary on Esthersrust. Both were shown on opening evening. 

The exhibition was called: Esthersrust, Cotton at the Coast (Katoen aan de Kust). And was set up at the National Archive in Paramaribo. With glass cabinets, tables and poster holders we were able to set up our finds and posters. During the opening evening, we could finally present our research at Esthersrust to all the visitors.

To us, it was a great experience to help set up this special exhibition about a unique archaeological site together with the students from the Anton de Kom University. We learned new skills and grew on a personal level. We hope many people have been able to visit the exhibition in Paramaribo and that even more people will be able to visit the Museum in Bakkie, where the collection will be displayed permanently from this year onward.

Image: ©Esthersrust project
The team that worked on the exhibition in the National Archives of Suriname in Paramaribo.

Our thoughts

The cultural heritage we experienced in Suriname is what people in a community think is worth investigating, protecting, and passing on. It is also a multifaceted topic with which we can talk about different views of th past. We believe that cultural heritage is something that needs to be futher investigated, shared and discussed in order to learn more about ourselves and others.