An archaeological dig is not just a way to obtain artefacts and other material remnants, it is a scientific method for harvesting information, advancing knowledge and trying to reconstruct the cultures of former societies.
Pick in hand, the archaeologist delicately lifts stratified layers to identify traces of human intervention. The work is not simple; it requires physical and intellectual effort and countless hours of hard work to glimpse a historic conclusion, or at least a hypothesis, in a bone fragment or a piece of pottery.
In that daily struggle to uncover the origins of the city founded in 1519, the Archaeology Department of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana has been engaged since November 14, 1987.
"Our investigations help to explain how the city was born and grew, the location of the first nuclei population, the adaptations made by the Spanish colonists to this area and how they exploited the medium in which they lived," said Roger Arrazcaeta Delgado, director of the Archaeology Department for more than a decade.
Another aim of this scientific centre has been providing support to the restoration of real estate. Many colonial buildings of Havana lack original architectural foundation plans or written memoirs.
Archaeology allows the substantiation of a story implicit in the ancient walls of the structures. By studying the archaeological strata, Arrazcaeta Delgado insists, one can "read" the constructive evolution of a building from the basement to the roof and thus formulate a more comprehensive picture of the city.
"Archaeology has enabled us to explore the everyday culture of the people who lived in Havana almost 500 years from its inception, the different social classes to which its inhabitants belonged and the source of many of the objects used."
It is known that, because of its strategic geographic position from whence the fleets to America returned to Spain laden with treasures, our city was favoured by the official Spanish trade offices, which at that time was very reduced and controlled. In Cuba, particularly in Havana, a large contraband trade grew up because of the difficulties other American Spanish colonies had to obtain supplies.
According to the researcher, these historical facts are established by the evidence continuously appearing in the subsoil of the city, because Havana is an enormous archaeological site.
The City's Stratification is Complex
In the course of two decades, the team of specialists of the Archaeology Department has excavated many dissimilar sites, from the church-convent of San Francisco de Asís and the church of Paula to the homes of Pablo Pedroso, the Count of Villanueva and the counts of Santovenia.
"We have found that the archaeological stratification of the city is quite complex," the director explains. "There is a great deal of superimposition of buildings over the same building or sector." Another curiosity is that many houses were built with materials taken from original buildings, even from a quarry that was later filled with garbage. So the stratifications in some of these archaeological sites are very rich and abundant and quite profound, he continued.
"In these places we frequently find significant collections of ceramic and glass debris that offer a comprehensive look at the types of containers used and the distinct sources and functions of ceramics in the city from the 16th to the 19th centuries".
Cranes and flamingos: native dishes of colonial Havana Many animal skeletal remains appear in the archaeological excavations of Old Havana, the study of which is complemented by existing historical documentation. The information from both sources has led to an increasingly substantiated knowledge of many of the dietary habits practiced by Habanans in previous centuries, as well as the introduction into the country of various species from Europe and America.
"Among the most representative were the cow and pig, with birds and fowl a supplement in the Habana's diet. They atecranes, flamingos, even ibis, gallinules, ducks and pigeons that were native to Havana.
But they also ate turkeys, chicken and domestic ducks thatwere introduced to the Island, explained archaeozoologist Osvaldo Jiménez Vázquez.
The study of animal skeletal remains has also provided other information about the adaptive process of alien species to the Havana and national environments. For example, we determined that the size of cattle that existed in Havana in the sixteenth century was larger than that of those introduced in the rest of the West Indies at the same time.
According to Jiménez Vázquez, it is possible that these animals found in Cuba a way of life best suited to their needs, in the calcium in the grass of the limestone soil and the absence of natural predators and diseases that attack livestock in Europe.
The adaptation of the Spanish people to the island environment also brought an intense introduction of marine resources for human consumption. "In almost all Havana archaeological sites there are abundant remains of fish, tortoises and sea turtles, as well as shells of edible shellfish, among which were molluscs and large oysters, very common in the city from the 16th to the 19th century," added the archaeologist.
A Coastal City
Underwater and coastal archaeology are also part of the department's research projects. Its studies cannot be confined only to the land in a city washed by the sea along its entire northern part. Among the most attractive research in this field is that of the coastal bathing areas along the Havana seawall, with some bathhouses excavated from Castle Point to Vedado, the oldest dating from the 18th century. All were made from precious wood built by slaves and prisoners, and were the scenes of parties and evening carnivals, which opulence can be seen in 19th Century lithographs," sub aquatic archaeologist Alessandro López Pérez said. "At these spas we found remnants of hardwoods in holes where the mainstay of the columns holding up those buildings were set."
The coastal studies also showed the functioning of three coastal bathhouses: that of San Rafael or Recreo, at Crespo Street, that of the Tropa or Soldados connecting to Aguila and Galiano Streets, and the extremely opulent Champs Elysees, associated with Genio Street.
Havana's coastal bathhouses began to disappear with the construction of the seawall at the beginning of the 20th century. One exciting project mentioned by López Pérez is the exploration of an aboriginal site in the area of Macao Point in Guanabo. "This is a settlement partly covered by the sea in which we have found many pieces from aboriginal groups on the surface of the seafloor."
Among the most important findings in this site are some wooden artifacts found beneath the sea, some of which were made with guayacán (a very hard wood native to America), added Roger Arrazcaeta who, with other colleagues, is in charge of the study of these pieces.
Historical Archaeology Enriches or Denies the "known"
In addition to aboriginal sites, Cuba's historic heritage includes a large number of colonial towns and villages, farms and sugar and coffee plantations. In addition, there is the huge underwater potential of numerous sunken ships around the island, from the era when fleets would anchor inthese waters and perhaps be surprised by hurricanes.
"The valuable cultural heritage goal of historical archaeology is to compare material evidence scientifically with historic documents to complement such information, enrich it or deny it," Roger Arrazcaeta cautions.
"We have worked for 20 years with the tools provided by this scientific discipline and the investigations allow us now to propose new challenges. We are able to make some generalizations about the city's development and that of its inhabitants," he said.
"We also want to delve deeper in studies such as the non-destructive analysis of ceramics, in which we have made significant progress. The preparation of a catalogue on the types of ceramics that arrived in colonial Havana is equally among our most important objectives," he concluded.