Sept. 23 — "It is through their bones that we are permitted to hear their voices from beyond the grave," Danish anthropologist Pia Bennike told a packed house in the Cafetorium on the University of the Virgin Islands' St. Croix campus.
"I can go further than historical records."
Bennike, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen's laboratory of biological anthropology, is on island to "help the Danes understand their island roots." She is part of a team working on a project called "Voices From Beyond the Grave," an excavation and anthropological examination of skeletons of enslaved Africans.
Finding cooking pots, tools and other items can only tell part of their lives, Bennike said. Scientific testing of skeletal remains can reveal many aspects of a subject's life. That could include the age, health, growth rate of children, nutrition, level of fertility in women and infections.
Bennike has studied skeleton remains for more than 30 years. Her work, she said, reveals aspects of the subject's life which cannot be accessed through oral or written archives. "I can do the same for you," she told the UVI audience Friday evening.
The skeleton stores a record of much of what happened during the subject's life like heavy physical labor, accidents, childbirth and diseases. Chemical analyses of skeletons can even determine the geographical birthplace of an individual, Bennike said.
For the "Voices From Beyond the Grave" excavation project, Bennike works in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and the African Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA), led by activist Shelley Moorhead. Historical research, conferences, lecture series, cultural and other exchanges have come via a 2005 memorandum of agreement signed by officials from the Virgin Islands and Denmark.
Excavation sites will be determined by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' Division of Historic Preservation. Director Myron Jackson will oversee the project.
"On a daily basis we encounter the issue of underground cultural resources," Jackson said. These encounters result from building projects throughout the territory, he said.
The three-hour Cafetorium lecture program also included an overview of the Danish West Indies slave trade by radio talk show host Mario Moorhead. Other speakers included Carl Christopher, Shelley Moorhead, and Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen.
The audience, which reflected the diverse population of St. Croix, reacted enthusiastically to the lecture. UVI undergraduate Brenda Lewis said she is eager to find out what happens after the excavations are complete. Several UVI students attended the lecture as part of a class assignment.
Suzy Womble said she attended because she is interested in the ancestors of Virgin Islanders. For her, the event raised questions. "I am realizing how much history can affect a people," Womble said. "After the transfer [from Denmark to America] nothing much changed. Its a shame. I still have questions."
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