In the province of Maria Trinidad Sánchez of the Dominican Republic, archaeologists have found over the course of digging at Playa Grande this year one of the oldest coins ever found in the Americas. Called a ‘vellón’, the copper coin circulated on the island of Hispaniola as of 1505 and has a face value of two Spanish maravedis. It was found together with numerous examples of pottery made by the Taino, a pre-Colombian nation that was eventually wiped out by the Spanish conquest, slavery and resulting epidemics. The Taino site is at least 1,000 years old and shows signs of the agricultural practices of the American natives.
Located on the northern shore of the Dominican Republic, between the towns of Rio San Juan and Cabrera, the excavation was conducted under the auspices of the Dominican Museum of Mankind and the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. Archaeologists Abelardo Jiménez Lambertus of the Museum, Sara Gálvez and Cristóbal Burkhalter Thiébaut of the Autonomous University of Madrid, as well as underwater archaeologist Alejandro Selmi and Alicia Galarraga of Venezuela.
At the beginning of the 1500s, in the Spanish colony on the island of Hispaniola, there was little circulating currency, thus complicating commercial transactions. In response to colonists’ complaints, Governor Nicolás de Ovando begged King Ferdinand of Aragon to provide sufficient coinage for their use. It was thus that King Ferdinand had both silver and copper coins minted in Spain as of 15 April 1505 at the Casa de la Moneda mint in Seville that were to circulate only in the New World. There were minted in Seville 500,000 maravedi coins denominated in the face value of four, two and one. These were sent immediately to the West Indies by royal decree.
Local media report that Adolfo López,an archaeologist associated with the Dominican Museum of Mankind who was the director of the dig, said “These can be considered the first American coins, since they were minted an iconography that is different from Spanish maravedsis.” He continued, saying “Even while it was just a few months before that his wife, Isabella of Castile – nicknamed the Catholic Monarch – Ferdinand desired to honor her by keeping, as on the coins circulating in Spain, her name and anagram on the obverse of the coin. But he modified the reverse by placing there his royal initial, an ‘F’ bearing a crown, thus making that coin into a new maravedi that had never been minted before. Today, these pieces are extremely rare and therefore valuable. So, in the midst of a entirely Taino archaeological stratum, we have found one of these two-maravedi copper coins that is well preserved and legible.”
Besides the Spanish coin, Taino human remains were uncovered at the Playa Grande excavation. Two skeletons were found that have been dated to between 500 to 1000 years old. One of the two Taino skeletons was found buried in a fetal position, a Taino funerary custom associated with the idea of death as a re-birth. The Taino frequently buried their dead beneath their homes, or sometimes in designated burial grounds.
One of the skeletons appears to be that of a child, buried beneath a Taino dwelling called a ‘bohio.’ The bones were nearly pulverized but the teeth are well preserved. The other skeleton, which is in better condition, was found near the Tainos’ garden plots. It is not known why the burial took place there. That this adult skeleton was found in a fetal position lends evidence that this a Taino burial. According to Venezuela archaeologist Alicia Galarraga, “The young adult individual was between the ages of 25 to 30 and is in a fetal position. They bound them so that they would stay in that position.” Continuing, Galarraga said “Possibly this was done because we are born that way and they wanted him to rest as though in his mother’s womb.” The skeletal remains will undergo a Carbon-14 dating analysis so as to determine the age, sex, date, and the type of food that was eaten.
Also discovered were fragments of Spanish ceramics, Mayan amulets, as well as pieces of bronze and iron. The presence of metal objects suggests that this Taino settlement had contact and commerce with Europeans well into the 16th century. This hypothesis is bolstered by the earlier discovery nearby of sunken ships. The oldest has been dated to 1553. Underwater archaeologist Selmi said the 1553 wreck sank with 36 cannons on board, while there are also wrecked French vessels from the 18th century. Selmi is the lead archaeologist for the Deep Blue Marine firm that seeks underwater treasure. He said that one night in 1798, fifteen ships sank near Playa Grande. Until now, the company has been able to find eight.
Selmi theorizes that if the Taino settlement existed in 1553, the natives would have had direct contact with the survivors of that wreck. It is thus that he accounts for the presence of Spanish and Mayan artifacts at the site.
Archaeologist López, and research colleague Jorge Ulloa, said that another interesting aspect of the finds was the discerning of three distinct Taino cultural groups that inhabited the island of Hispaniola between 100 and 800 AD, as dated by the types of ceramics found in situ. These are: Ostionioides, Mellacoides and Chicoides. It has not been until now, said the researchers, that ceramics from the three groups had been found in the same archaeological level. The discovery provides information about the possible integration of the three native cultures at the site.
López said that another important find was an area where mounds of various lengths, 3 to 4 metres wide and 50 to 70 centemetres in height, were found. It is believed the Taino people used these as raised agricultural plots. Preserved intact, researchers believe that they were used from 750 to 1550 AD. “We knew that they had existed because Bartolomé de las Casas tell us that around these settlements that Taino had many mounds planted with maize, yuca and other crops, and because others had been found. But until now there had never been found in the Caribbean a field so perfectly preserved.”
De las Casas was a Dominican friar and priest from Spain who wrote an extensive account of native American culture and the history of the Spanish conquest. He was also notable for having defended the natural rights of native Americans from exploitation by Europeans. The name of his religious order was incorporated into the name of the country that is now the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, as well as the name of the founder of the order, St Dominic de Guzmán. On the other half of the island is the Republic of Haiti.
Investors are planning to build a museum as a tourist attraction at the site, which had belonged to the Banco Central of the Dominican Republic. Fragments of Taino pottery, found over the years, had tipped off the researchers that there was a site there, possibly rich in artifacts and hidden history.