Eastern Michigan University

COVID-19 Update: The latest news and guidance for students, faculty and staff.

direct edit

Archaelogical Rock Art Sampling in Cuba

A Week in the Life of an Analytical Chemist - By Dr. Ruth Ann Armitage

Inside Cachimba CaveIn June 2014, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Cuba to participate in a research project to undertake the first ever radiocarbon dating of rock art there.  The project was initiated by my colleague, Suzanne Baker of Archaeological/Historical Consultants and Culturelink, who met the Cuban archaeologists during a UNESCO trip in 2013.  After telling them about our work in Nicaragua, they were very excited about the possibility of doing a similar project in Cuba.  The project came together relatively quickly, and we were able to spend one week in Cuba working with the archaeologists to select and collect samples of charcoal-pigmented images from several caves near Havana.  Work is now ongoing here at EMU to determine the composition and age of the paint samples.


Streets of Old HavanaThe USA-based part of our team consisted of Suzanne, me, and my husband and fellow chemist Daniel Fraser, of Lourdes University.  Daniel has assisted with sample collection on previous projects, including the one in Nicaragua, and his help (and height) were invaluable.  We traveled on Sunday, June 8, 2014 via a charter flight from Miami to Havana, wCollecting charcoal from pictograph in Cachimba Cavehere we met up with Roger Arrazcaeta Delgado, Director of the Cabinet for Archaeology of the Office of the City of Havana Historian (Gabinete de Arqueología de la Oficina del Historiador de La Habana).  Roger and his colleagues took us to our rooms in Old Havana, and we met up with the rest of the archaeologists at the Gabinete on Monday morning to plan out our project in detail and obtain a rental car that would take our entire team to the archaeological sites starting on Tuesday.  The plan is to determine the age of the paintings to be able to attribute them to one of three different groups from the past:  pre-ceramic aboriginal peoples, later aboriginal groups who practiced farming and who had developed ceramic technologies, or post-Columbian native peoples.

Opening to Cachimba CaveThe first site we visited was Cueva de la Cachimba, near Matanzas, Cuba.  This large cave on a height of land overlooking the ocean contains both petroglyphs (engraved images) and charcoal pictographs.  We quickly learned how to identify guao, a plant related to poison ivy and oak – a much nastier cousin – that grew along the route to the cave.  The large main room of Cachimba was accessed by crawling through a relatively small opening.  Huge columns loomed in the darkness, and charcoal drawings could be seen on many of the flowstone curtains and stalagmites.  But to reach the depths of the cave required using a knotted rope to provide handholdRope Climb to lower Cachimba Caves in the smooth but steeply inclined walls of the next opening.  In this lowest level were the petroglyph engravings on the fragile, dusty marl ceiling.  We collected samples of charcoal from many of the images at Cachimba; in one case, the images were on a limestone curtain above a sloping floor that opened onto another part of the cave.  To collect that sample, one of the archaeologists had to hold my feet to make sure I didn’t slide down!  We spent the entire day in Cachimba Cave, and had to deal with a dead car battery before we could head back to Old Havana that night late.


Pictograph panel at Los MuertosWednesday took us to the Guara Pictograph Region, less than an hour’s drive from Havana.  The site consists of three different cave complexes, all of which were easier to access than Cachimba Cave.  The paintings in Guara are all in black and appear to be finely ground charcoal mixed with some kind of binding medium.  Cueva de los Muertos has two main rooms, only one of which contained pictographs.  Samples were collected from the paintings that were least affected by the modern graffiti found there.  A short distance away was Cueva del Platano, so named for the large banana tree growing in the collapsed arSampling in Platano Caveea.  A large set of concentric circles and a scene of a human and animal were sampled from this cave.  That afternoon we had the opportunity to visit a farm belonging to a friend of Roger, not far from the caves.  We had an amazing home-made dinner at the farm of fresh corn tamales and gris, a combination of black beans and rice, along with squeaky fresh cow’s cheese and refreshingly cold spring water. 


Using the field microscope to look at paint in Platano CaveWe returned to Guara the following day to revisit Cueva del Platano and collect one more sample there, and to continue on to Cueva del Aguacate, also very nearby.  We encountered new vicious plants (a liana called “cat’s claw”) and some interesting fauna, like the colorful pedorrera (Cuban tody bird) and geckoes.  And gigantic 10-inch long millipedes.  Aguacate Cave required some contortions to get into.  The opening was small enough that you hadCrawling out of the Claraboyas Room at Aguacate Cave to shimmy in on your belly and elbows.  Daniel was unable to assist me in collecting samples in Aguacate because his shoulders only barely fit through the opening, and he chose to wait rather than risk getting stuck!  The cave can also be accessed by climbing down the eponymous avocado tree in the middle where the roof had collapsed in.  Several mostly decomposed cow carcasses awaited us inside, as they had fallen through the roof at some point in the recent past.  Similar scenes of humans and animals, as well as concentric circles were found in this cave.  It was a very dirty experience for this lab scientist, who then had to give a talk at the Gabinete in the afternoon about the plasma-chemical oxidation process!


Inside Las Plumas CaveThe end of the week took us back to Matanzas to another cave near Cachimba: Cueva de las Plumas.  In addition to charcoal images at this site was a single sun motif in red ochre, which we did not sample.  We did sample two geometric images far in the back of Las Plumas for dating.  This cave was very large, with many beautiful limestone formations; one room of columns was photographed several years ago by National Geographic, as it is the largest of its kind in the Americas!  Friday was our last day in the field, and we ate our lunches together sharing a few jokes about our week.  We navigated back out of the guao to our functioning if very dirty rental car, and back to Havana.  On Saturday, we met up to finish discussing the project, look at someRemodeled Buildings in Plaza Viejo other artifacts excavated from the sites we visited, and complete our paperwork for bringing the paint samples back to EMU for analysis and dating.  Our trip back to the USA was uneventful if delayed by several hours.  We thank the archaeologists with whom we worked so closely – Roger, Racso, Toni, Chino, Adrian, and the others – for all their patience with our limited (or nonexistent) Spanish and their wonderful companionship and professionalism.  They made our trip to Cuba an unforgettable one, and we look forward to using the technology available to us here to answer their questions about the ancient people of their beautiful island.

- Posted 8/25/14.


Previous News Story                                                       Next News Story

Return to List of News Stories                                      Return to Chemistry Home Page

The Department of Chemistry is part of the College of Arts & Sciences, 214 Pray-Harrold