Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Walter Roth Museum of anthropology

Founded in 1974 from the collection of the Guyanese archaeologist, Dr. Dennis Williams, the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and Art History (as it was originally called) was the first Museum of anthropology in the English speaking Caribbean. It was planned to site the Museum in the town of Bartica, however this was changed at the last moment because of the fuel crisis of 1974, which caused the original funds allocated to be withdrawn. In 1980 the Museum, now renamed the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, was moved to its present location, 61 Main street, North Cummingsburg, Georgetown (next to State House the official residence of the President of Guyana.) Following this move, the collections of Sir Everand Im Thurn, Dr. Walter Roth and Mr. John J. Quelch were transferred here from the National Museum. A typological study from the collections of Dr. Betty J. Meggers and the late D. Clifford Evans of the Smithsonian institution was later donated and in 1991, Guyanese Cultural Anthropologist, Dr. George P. Mentore, donated an ethnographic collection of the Wai-Wai of southern Guyana. The Museum’s also include excavated artifacts from all ten administrative regions of Guyana as well several other small ethnographic and archaeological collections. Including donations of artifacts from the late President Desmond Hoyte and the late President Mrs. Janet Jagan.
It is generally believed that John Sharps (1845-1913) was the architect of the building, which was constructed before 1890. Duncan McRae Hutson, a Guyanese barrister-of-law and legistalor bought it in 1891. When Mr. McRae Hutson wife’s passed away in 1942, he sold the building to the Government of British Guiana. The government used it to house the Teachers Training College and later, the Attorney General Chambers. In 1976, the National Trust of Guyana gazetted the building as a national historic monument and in 1978, the building was acquired by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Social Development. It was then decided that the Department of Culture of the Ministry of Education to be used as a Museum. The Walter Roth Museum was officially opened to the public in 1982.
This Museum is named in honour of Walter Edmund Roth(1861-1933). Dr. Roth was a noted anthropologist, administrator and surgeon who was educated in England. After qualifying as a surgeon at St. Thomas Hospital, London, he followed his two elder brothers to Australia. There he held a succession of positions ranging from teacher to surgeon. But his later work on Australian ethnology made him popular. After serving successfully for several years as an Anthropologist and Protector of the Aborigines, he eventually moved to British Guiana in 1907 where he accepted an appointment as Government Medical Officer, Stipendiary Magistrate and Deputy-Protector of Indians in the Pomeroon district. In 1920 he was appointed commissioner of the Rupununi. After many years of service in the interior of British Guiana, he finally retired in 1928 to become Curator of the Museum of the Royal Agricultural Commercial Society (now renamed the Guyana National Museum) and Government Archivist. Due to his strong interest in anthropology, his work resulted in two major monographs of the arts, crafts and customs of the Guiana Indians being published in 1924 and 1929 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington. Walter Roth died in the capital Georgetown in 1933.
The first director of the Walter Roth Museum was Dr. Dennis Williams who served from its founding in 1974 up to his death in 1998. Dr. Williams originally an artist and writer has been exposed to archaeology in the Sudan. This interest was rekindled when he returned to Guyana in 1968 to live in the Mazaruni district. He was eventually able to pursue his interest full-time when he was appointed Director of the newly created Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and Art History in 1974. Dr. Williams primary interest was in archaeology but he made a major contribution to world archaeology in his study of petroglyphs and pictographs. His skill as a writer served him well with his scientific papers and articles, as well as his numerous works of fiction. In recognition in all his achievements , he received several national awards and Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 1989.
Over the years the Walter Roth Museum has been engaged in numerous research programmes. Of these the most important were the archaeological research conducted by dr. Williams. His work yielded valuable information on the history , pre-history, and past and present cultures of the Amerindians. The archaeological surveys continue at the Walter Roth Museum with Dr. Mark Plew of Boise State University, Idaho.
Also the Museum in-house an outreach programme, Junior Archaeology. In this programme children become members of Junior Archaeology and visit the Museum where they are instructed in various aspects of archaeology, cultural anthropology and anthropological linguistics. Museum staff regularly correspond with children across Guyana and the Caribbean. Members receive publications and newsletters specifically overseas or local members in the regions of Guyana.
The Museum also has an active publishing programme. It’s ‘annual Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is overseen by a scientific advisory board, was first published in 1978. Since that time, apart from journals, several other publications and leaflets, dealing with exhibitions, ethnography, prehistory, and the junior Archaeology programme, have also been published.
Due to the deterioration of the main structure, the Walter Roth Museum was closed to the public in 1996. the exhibits were then stored at the National Anthropological Archives, which was located behind the Museum. All Museum work, including a small display, was then conducted from what was the Museum Library and Research Centre.
After several months, rehabilitation work was started. This work ground to a halt soon afterwards and was not resumed until the year 2000 when the Walter Roth Museum came under the newly formed Ministry of Culture, youth and Sport. Work on the main building was completed in 2002. The Walter Roth Museum was officially reopened to the public on 25th September 2003.
Some artifacts that can be found at the Walter Roth Museum are:
Basketry- Strainers and Sifters
Which come in several varieties are primarily used to sift lumps of cassava or flour. The flour is then collected in a bowl, tray, canoe, or other container before it is used for cooking. Sifters which have the secondary function as a strainer for several of the casav drinks made by the Amerindians. A special type of strainer with larger holes is used to sift lums from farine. Other sifters are cassava sifter and farine sifter.

Parishara Dance
The head band worn during the parishara dance is made from mukuru and feathers. The woman’s armbands used during the parishara dance is made from kraua and macaw and powis feathers. One band also displays a small gourd. Generally this dance is performed by the Makushi peoples.

Fish trap and Arrow and Bows

These are all hunting and fishing technology that has been introduced by the Amerindians. The fish trap varies in size and is designed to catch different sizes of fishes.

Amerindian Burial beliefs, practices and mortuary Ritual
Amerindian pottery found at burial sites often displays evidence of mortuary practice and belief in a spirit world. As evidence of this, burial urns were decorated by painting symbolic patterns and figures on them. At other times ceremonial figures of animals related to the shaman and the spirit world were attached to the urn. These figures included the frog, monkey, king vulture, and tortoise. Of these figures birds are associated with flight and the sky while animal figures are associated with either shaman or the under world.

Burial Urns

Amerindians are known to have used several different types of burial urns for secondary burial purposes. These include;
Large open mouth urns which could hold large bones like skulls, arm bones, leg bones etc.
Small globular narrow mouth urns with covers which were used to hold cremated remains.
Small open or narrow mouth urns and shallow bowls which were used to hold small bones and teeth. Sometimes small urns were placed inside the large open mouth urns.

Fish trap petroglyph- found in the Demerara river

Enumerative petroglyph- found in the Demerara River

The cassava squeezer or matapi which is its true carib name is found throughout the Guianas and far westward as the upper Rio Negro. It was known in Suriname as the Carib snake. An interesting legend saw that the first Arawak man who observed the motion of a snake while swallowing its prey and the directions of the lines upon its back formed the matapi expressing the poisonous juice of the cassava (manioc) the matapi consist of a head, mouth, body and an ankle. The matapi can be made from itiri or mukru. A miniature form of matapi is used for extracting the oil from the crabwood (carapa) nut and the kokeret ( maxillama) seed.

Stone Chip Cassava Grater
The making of a cassava grater can be divide into four parts : The preparation of the board by men, the making of the stone, chips by women, their fixation into it by men and women, in the final touches by men, To get the board a man will kill a tree (one of the simarukas) cut off a block 2 or 3 feet long from the outside part and square it down to a piece from 15 to 20 inches wide and about 1 inch thick making the front and the back slightly concave and convex. Afterwards a diagram is drawn infront of the board with a finger dipped in a vegetable dye. A particular type of stone (aporphyry) is used which only comes outer crop that runs across the bottom of the Essequibo River and that can only be obtained in the dry season. After the stone into chips they are inserted in a diagonal pattern into holes drilled into the board with a pointed bone.


  1. A National Museum is very important to our Heritage. We need to start a building fund to update and expand the current structure or even relocate to a different site within Georgetown for ease of commuting.
    Many of Guyana wealthy are overseas and we should appeal to them for donations and this can be done by the various Embassies all over the World.
    In addition, we can appeal for donations of historic significance which people may just be hoarding in their homes.
    Gary Serrao is doing a fantastic job but this requires Government intervention and the general public.
    We need to start now before these items disappear in our trenches, canals or even waste dispostal.

  2. This piece of information was very useful to me .Thanks

  3. This piece of information was very useful to me .Thanks

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