St Helena, in the South Atlantic, preserves a unique and varied heritage resource. The island is best known for being the place of Napoleon’s exile after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 until his death in 1821. However, this association disguises a longer and far more important contribution to British history. St Helena played a key role in Britain’s colonial development, first as an East India Company possession and later as a Crown Colony.
The island’s archaeology is very well-preserved and extremely diverse. It includes military defences and communication networks from the 17th century to the present, plantation houses and their estates, Napoleon’s house in exile, Georgian colonial architecture that extends throughout the main settlement of Jamestown, and a distinctive vernacular building style that prevails across the whole island.
Since 2007 Andrew Pearson has been the archaeological consultant for the proposed airport on St Helena. This is a major infrastructure project, which if realised will include the construction of a new road to provide access during construction and operation, in addition to the runway, passenger and airside facilities. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the project included a considerable heritage input, beginning with a desk-based assessment, field survey of the Airport Development Area and creation of GIS constraints mapping. This information fed into the Environmental Statement published in 2007.
In 2008, as part of further investigative works, a major programme of field work was undertaken – the first archaeological research to be carried out on the island. This included building recording across the entire Airport Development Area, and excavation in one specific location: Rupert’s Valley. The work was directed by Andrew Pearson in collaboration with Blackfreighter Archaeology and Conservation, with staff from AOC Archaeology and Bristol University, aided by volunteers from St Helena.
The excavations took place within part of a cemetery for ‘Liberated Africans’ freed from slave ships by the Royal Navy in the middle years of the 19th century. Much of the valley is occupied by these unmarked graveyards, and the archaeological works only uncovered a very small proportion of the total number of burials that are known to exist.
In all, 325 bodies were excavated, some in single graves but many from multiple interments. Virtually all were children or young adults – prime material for the slave traders. Skeletal preservation was extremely high, and osteological analysis has found evidence for injuries and disease sustained during the period of enslavement, as well as for cultural dental modification, contemporary medical practices and autopsies. Clothing and coffins also survived, as did personal effects such as jewellery, together with relics of the slave trade itself.
What has been found is a stark physical reminder of the process and conditions of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas. It is dramatic and disturbing, and moreover it is extremely rare: over 11 million people were transported across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, but Rupert’s Valley contains one of the few (and perhaps the only) graveyard of Africans rescued directly from the slave ships. Although remote in geographical terms, this small valley is therefore of immense cultural and heritage significance.
The post-excavation programme is now complete and the initial findings have been published in Council for British Archaeology Research Report No. 169: Infernal Traffic: excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena (2011). A Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant has enabled a detailed follow-up historical study, Distant Freedom, published in 2016 by Liverpool University Press, while other analyses of the site and its contexts have been published in the journals Slavery & Abolition, Atlantic Studies and a/b: Autobiography Studies, the OUP edited book Dealing with the dead: mortuary archaeology and contemporary society, and the magazines Nature, Natural History, and British Archaeology.