The Official Homepage
of the
Nevis Synagogue Archaeology Project


This page provides information on the ongoing archaeological search for the location of the synagogue of the 17th- and 18th-century Jewish community of Nevis.

The Synagogue that Wasn't: An Archaeological Tale

    The Synagogue of Nevis

    Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. the synagogue has served as the central institution of Jewish religious and communal life. It is not certain when the synagogue on Nevis was erected, but the archives of the Amsterdam Jewish community contain a 1684 reference to a synagogue on the island. This document combined with the 1679 date of the oldest surviving stone in the Jewish cemetery indicates that the synagogue was likely constructed by the late 1670s or early 1680s. The last known reference to an active synagogue is a lease that dates to February 1, 1761. It is not certain when the synagogue closed, but written records indicate that the building was in ruins by 1809 and completely gone by 1846.

    Where was the Synagogue Located?

    When our research began there was only one known reference to the actual location of the synagogue on Nevis. This evidence came from a letter written in 1724 by Reverand Robert Robertson in which Robertson stated that the synagogue was located in the port of Charlestown in St. Paul's Parish, as is the surviving cemetery. As Jewish cemeteries are traditionally within walking distance of the synagogue the location of the surviving cemetery on Government Road is a valuable clue in determining the location of the synagogue. Across the road from the cemetery is a path leading to the south that is known on the island as "Jew's Walk" or "Jew's Alley". Today this path leads towards a location that has long been held in Nevisian oral history to be the site of the "the Jewish Temple" or "Jews' School."

    Archaeology at the Suspected Site of the Synagogue

    At the request of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, Michelle Terrell (Ph.D., Boston University) and Eva Hill (M.A., University of Minnesota) began an archaeological investigation in 1993 at the location held to be the site of the synagogue of Nevis' 17th- and 18th-century Jewish community upon which stands a small stone ruin. A preliminary archaeological examination of the property, which is located behind the Nevis Administration Building, in the spring of that year concluded that the site warranted further investigation. Additional archaeological reconnaissance surveys of the property carried out during the 1993 and 1994 summer field seasons determined that the small building on the site was a cistern of what was once a much larger structure. Further excavation in 1996 revealed extensive structural remains associated with 18th-and 19th-century deposits.

    In 1997 a grant from The Commonwealth Jewish Council and generous contributions from private donors facilitated the first large scale investigation of the site. Unlike the limited testing of previous seasons, the investigation of the site on this scale allowed for the collection of a large amount of cultural material from across the site that, once analyzed, resulted in the development of a more complete and exact picture of the history of the site. Through the cataloging and analysis of the 11,265 artifacts recovered from the twelve test units excavated, we were able to determine that although occasional examples of late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-century materials appeared on the site, the first structure on the site was built during the last quarter of the eighteenth century - one hundred years after the synagogue of the island was constructed. Furthermore, the artifacts recovered were purely domestic in nature and testify to the site having been occupied by a series of families through 1929 when the last occupants sold the structure to the government. Therefore the archaeological excavation proved that the synagogue was NOT located on the property behind the Nevis Administration Building.


Excavation of a post- 1762 Fireplace Foundation
on the Suspected Synagogue Site

    If it is not the synagogue why was it called the "Jews' School"?

    While visiting Nevis in 1957, Rabbi Malcolm Stern asked to be shown the synagogue of the island. His well intentioned guide led him to the site of the above house, which had been seriously damaged in the earthquake of 1950. It was indeed a substantial stone ruin and Stern took notes on the building and photographed it. During the same visit he also recorded the epitaphs on the surviving stones in the cemetery. Upon his return to the US, Rabbi Stern wrote an article for the American Jewish Archives entitled "Some Notes on the Jews of Nevis" (1958) and a follow-up article for the American Jewish Historical Society Quarterly in 1971. Unfortunately these articles gave credence to the erroneous identification of the synagogue site and were also the origin of "the Jews' Walk."

    Okay, so where is the Synagogue?!

    Recently, additional archival research produced previously unknown references to the Nevis synagogue. By combining these documents with an exhaustive mapping project, the actual location of the synagogue has now been determined. This property will undergo archaeological testing in the future in order to see if remnants of the synagogue have survived to the present day. The archival research has also made it possible to construct a detailed history of the purported synagogue property and its ownership back to 1714 further verifying that it was never the site of the island's synagogue. The details of these findings will be published upon the completion of Michelle Terrell's dissertation.

Grave Marker

The archaeological investigation of the Nevis synagogue is one aspect of Michelle Terrell's dissertation on the historical archaeology of a single colonial-period Jewish community. Other phases of Terrell's research include documenting the Jewish cemetery on Nevis, and mapping the location of households of members of the Jewish community. This community-level study, the first of its kind, will increase understanding of the roles and lives of the Jews in the colonial Caribbean, as well as provide a foundation for future research.

The Jewish Community of Nevis Archaeology Project | The Nevis Synagogue Archaeology Project
Nevis History | The Nevis Jewish Cemetery | The Cemetery Resistivity Survey

Michelle Terrell's Homepage | | Revised November 2001

Since July 21, 1999

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.