Saturday, 22 December 2007

One just before the end of the 1999 term of his final
year of training at City and Guilds of London Art School, Evan Millner was leafing
through the 'Jewish Travel Guide', wondering what to do for the summer. The article on
Barbados caught his eye, with a little by-line stating that help
was needed restoring the ancient Spanish and Portuguese cemetery. Evan, who also holds an MA in Jewish Studies, and an undergraduate degree in French Mediaeval Culture and Literature,
was soon in touch by e-mail with Mr Paul Altman, the Project Co-ordinator at
Barbados. The Cemetery at Barbados is important for a number of reasons - its age, urban location, only a couple of minutes walk from the Houses of Parliament, and the readability of the surviving inscriptions, due to their not having been exposed to acid rain.

Evan arrived in
Barbados in summer 1999, and during the first season on site, the work was primarily investigatory, with little reconstruction and repair. A significant area of the oldest part of the cemetery was rediscovered, and the groundwork was laid for re-ordering the stones, so that they would be able to sit in their original locations.

The restoration team had begun by digging along the line of the wall of the old Mahamad buildings (now
the car-park). It was clarified that the car-park itself was not sited on top of the graves. Three feet down, they found the first stone. Although a problem had been solved, it had been replaced by a new one - the knowledge that most of the cemetery was buried below 2 feet of earth. Over the summer, excavations continued, and a number of
stones were uncovered that had not seen the light of day for over 200 years.
( A penny dated 1788 was found on one of the stones). An important find, was
the discovery of the tomb of Rabbi Amnuel Burgos, who died in 1679. This stone has a long and fine inscription in Hebrew. And is
firm proof of the existence of a synagogue in Speightstown at this date. The
community in its early days had two synagogues, but, we can now be
reasonably certain, only the cemeteries in
Bridgetown. We know Rabbi Burgos
was in Speightstown, as fortuitously, his widow (buried beside him) is
listed in the Speightstown census of December 1679 as a "head of
household". Another unusual discovery, was that of a large ceramic wine-jar,
presumably, judging by the remains inside, to have contained old tephilleen, and possibly a Sefer Torah. This was a late burial, and may correspond to material that had to be buried after the 1831 hurricane.

This year, Evan was on the island for two months. Excavation of the area right outside the synagogue was the priority, and a large amount of earth was removed. Important discoveries, were a row of damaged box-tombs, their remains projecting vertically from the soil like so many broken teeth. The brick plinths of some tombs were found intact in this area as well, to their original height. This meant that an accurate reconstruction was possible, using historic building techniques.

Last year, Evan made a trial reconstruction of a box-tomb made by re-modelling fragments in clay, and making a mould of plaster, from which a cement-fibreglass copy was cast. This year, due to the excavations near the synagogue, a much better preserved box-tomb side was found, and a higher quality plaster piece-mould was made. A second, smaller type of box-tomb side piece was also reconstructed, using modelling clay, from fragments, and cast. A number of stones have now been put back onto their original foundations, on the fine box-tombs. As the originals were Portland stone, the local Portland cement, used for the casting, gives a visually fine match. In one small area, the appearance of the cemetery is now much changed, and it is already possible to get a clear idea of what it would have looked like during the early 1800's, when it was probably in its best state of preservation.

Evan was assisted in his task by two labourers, and an expert local mason,
Mr Charles Leslie. Mr Leslie has continued to supervise the project while Evan has been away, according to a pre-arranged schedule. The task was (and remains)
enormous, and Evan estimated a time period of possibly up to eight more years to fully complete restoration of the cemeteries, if the project were to proceed at a steady
pace. There are four Jewish Cemeteries in
Bridgetown - three surrounding the
synagogue, and also a small cemetery behind the shops in
Swan Street. (Which is presently not run by the Community.)

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