Most of the people who bring shovels to the beaches on St. John--the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands--are tourists building sand castles, or campers pitching tents in the national park there. A few, however, are digging for clues to the Caribbean's past. Among them is Ken Wild, a National Park Service archaeologist. Armed with a crew of volunteers, Wild has recently made some remarkable discoveries at a site along the north shore's Cinnamon Bay. His findings are due to appear in the Proceedings of the International Congress for Caribbean Archaeology.

Thousands of artifacts unearthed over the past two years--including bones, beads, shell offerings, pottery, carved stones and pendants--indicate that the beach was once the backdrop for a temple belonging to a Taino Indian king or chieftan. The Tainos were the predominant ethnic group on other Caribbean islands such as the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, and they were the first tribe Christopher Columbus encountered. Before Wild's work, though, it was unknown whether they, the Caribs or the Arawaks had settled St. John.

The Cinnamon Bay artifacts leave little room for doubt. Wild and his collaborators have recovered numerous beads and zemis, or stone carvings of deities, that strongly resemble pictures of beads and Taino gods drawn in a book found at another site. As shown in the photos and illustration here, the zemis typically have three points: one pointing to the sky, where Yaya, the Creator, resides; one pointing to the underworld and Hupia, the spirit of the dead; and one pointing to the world of the living and their spirit, Goiz.

Zemis taken from different levels of the site have helped Wild stitch together how the Taino religion most likely developed. At around 1000 A.D., the Taino appear to have made simple offerings to gods, he reports, but by 1200, they were worshiping their ancestors. Zemis from this period onward have faces that look like bats, and Wild thinks the Tainos believed that their ancestors returned as bats. The eyes on these zemis also match those on the petroglyphs at St. John's Reef Bay, where there are pools that bats frequent.

Wild notes that at around 1500, it seems that the Taino transferred the spirits of their ancestors to their living king, making him their religious focus. Zemis from this time, the most ornate of them all, wore headdresses. Volunteers have also found a wealth of granite beads with holes in them, presumably for inserting feathers, and Wild thinks that these beads were part of a headdress for the Taino cheif.

Excavation and analysis of the artifacts will continue, but it appears that Wild has salvaged many clues just in time. Beach erosion threatens much of what remains at Cinnamon Bay, including an 18th-century slave house, next up for study. And a Taino temple, completely intact, is a significant find. "It may not be the holy grail," Wild noted to the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, an organization helping to fund the work, "but then again this isn't Europe." Indeed, it is a rare glimpse at life in the Caribbean before the Europeans got there.

Images: illustration: TAINO INTER-TRIBAL COUNCIL; photos: Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park