The Aklis site is an important pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Caribbean. Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge manager Mike Evans has checked on its condition monthly for more than 20 years, daily during storms. He has collected hundreds of artifacts and remains that have fallen out of the coastal site on a weather-exposed promontory at the refuge.

Last summer, for the first time, he and his staff got help documenting and fortifying the site, which is highly subject to sea-level rise.

“Over the last 22 going on 23 years, basically I’ve watched it slowly wash away. Storm surges, hurricane events, heavy weather episodes definitely have an effect on shoreline erosion,” says Evans, who has managed the refuge on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1993. “Although we don’t have specific metrics, I can tell you the general average calm-water wave action is higher now than it was 20-some years ago.”

Help came to Evans in the form of 11 college students and their advisors who recovered loose artifacts and remains and shored up the prehistoric shell midden, habitation and burial site as part of a five-week field school coordinated by Mississippi State University, with help from the National Park Service (NPS).

“They basically were doing what we call salvage archaeology. In other words, they were working on the parts of the Aklis site that are most vulnerable to erosion,” says Evans. “What they did was very significant, but there’s a whole lot more that needs to be done.”

The site dates to 200-300 A.D., about 1,200 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the West. “Aklis has a little bit of everything. The people who were living there were probably growing some of their own food, but they were also taking advantage of all of the natural resources around them – a mix of farming and foraging. They were obviously tied to that spot on the landscape,” says Derek Anderson, a Mississippi State archaeologist who oversaw the field school. “One of the most important things about the site, aside from the role it played in Caribbean lifeways, is the preservation.”

Evans, who was a field archaeologist in Illinois and Puerto Rico before coming to Sandy Point Refuge, says human skeletal material is particularly well-preserved: “It can he handled. It can be worked with. It can be analyzed.” The inhabitants likely were indigenous West Indian societies of the Ostionoid culture period who probably originated in Central and South America.

“At Aklis there is a true sense of wonder and excitement while excavating because the site is a treasure,” says Kayleigh Sandhu, a field school student who recently graduated from Mississippi State. “One of the best things about working at Aklis was the hands-on bio-archaeology experience.”

The site is large by island standards, at least four contiguous acres. It yields high-density, high-quality artifacts: tools made from conch shell and bone; pottery shards; and even complete ceramic bowls. Some are “high-end ceremonial material, shell and bone material that’s been incised and etched with designs,” says Evans, “polychrome bowls with paint from 1,000 years ago.”

All material goes to the Southeast Archeological Center, an NPS repository in Florida.

“The better we understand how pre-Columbian people survived and were able to make a living, the better we’ll understand about what we’re doing now,” says Evans. “Studying the archaeological record tells us what these ecosystems were really like.” Knowing how fisheries resources and other natural resources supported the population then, Evans says, gives modern conservationists insight into how to manage resources now.

Tight finances precluded the field school from returning this summer. “It’s important that we return in 2016,” Anderson says, “because archaeological material is going to continue washing away. Information is being lost on a daily basis. So if we’re not there to document it, it will disappear forever.”