Payne’s passion for the past
A passion for the island’s hidden past has won a commendation for Bermudian student archaeologist Meshellae Payne.
Bermuda’s shoreline was once dotted with man-made fish ponds that were used for centuries as a simple larder to store fish and turtles — but faded from use with the advent of refrigeration.
Crawl in Hamilton Parish takes its name from the storage ponds of that name, similar to the word “corral” as a pen for livestock.
Now largely forgotten, the relics were explored by the 24-year-old student for her study at University College London’s institute of archaeology.
Examiners rated it “excellent” and awarded Meshellae the Ione Gedye prize in recognition of an overall “outstanding performance” through her master’s in conservation.
“I’ve always loved history — I fell into research because youexperience history by digging into it,” she said.
In Meshellae’s case, the digging involved scouring the coastline for the signs of fish ponds — testament to the ingenuity of early Bermudians.
She said: “I’m very interested in the connection between nature and culture, and Bermuda has great examples of people thinking outside the box in order to survive.”
Intrigued when she learnt of the use of “crawls” two years ago, Meshellae found that the storage ponds were a distinctively local innovation.
Bermuda is the only place where they were widely used — other than Hawaii, where a similar geology of limestone on top of volcanic rock is found.
Meshellae, from Warwick, was working during the summer in the Conservation Department’s job programme with Philippe Rouja, Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks.
She thanked Dr Rouja and his mother, Sandra, for sharing their research — along with supporting her through university, providing work experience for the past three summers, and helping her achieve open-water diver certification.
Ms Rouja is “an expert on Bermuda fish ponds who is attempting to get fish ponds protected to ensure that some are saved for posterity”, she said.
“There used to be hundreds of them — I’m not sure how many survived. I found about 25 of them in my investigation.”
St David’s had many such ponds, which were destroyed when much of the old shoreline was lost to the land reclamation to build the United States naval airbase.
“Some are maintained but a lot of them are forgotten,” Meshellae said.
The remains of “crawls” can be spotted from cuts in the stone — “things that look a bit too formed to be natural”, she said.
The conservation side of Meshellae’s studies reflects her wish to maintain relics.
“Maintaining something means figuring out what makes it worth being maintained,” she explained.
She graduates next year from UCL and aims to pursue a doctorate in the field “eventually”, with volunteer work in museums coming next — with the ultimate hope of bringing her skills back home.
Along with the Roujas, Meshellae credited her mother Shawnita and the extended family for their support throughout her studies.
“To end up working in Bermuda is definitely my goal — it’s a fascinating place for research,” she said.
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