Tag Archives: archaeology

The Big Island is Amazing

Back when Seven and I lived on Oahu we were much too broke to go touring around so we never visited any of the other Hawaiian Islands. This time we thought we should do better, and we decided to go to the Big Island because our friends Ann and Joel — with whom we have for several years spent a week in August on Cuttyhunk Island in Buzzard’s Bay (a little closer to home) — have family on the Big Island they were planning to visit. So we thought we’d catch up with them there for the very last leg of our long voyage.

My reasons for choosing the Big Island had therefore little to do with what I thought I might learn there (though, of course, every island is interesting to me) with the consequence that I was quite unprepared and absolutely amazed by what I saw.  Like, for instance, these fantastic petroglyphs!

Not all of which may be terribly old. Apparently the site is still used (or was recently) by Hawaiians who, like many Polynesians, bury a new baby’s pito (or umbilicus) somewhere special to ensure a long and good life. Some of these markings have to do with that practice (the circles and divets, particularly), and I have no way of knowing which are recent and which might be old. Still the turtles and figures and even, I thought, a stylized canoe, were all extremely cool.

But the Big Island is amazing for so many reasons, not least because it is a window on an earlier geological stage of many of the islands we’ve been visiting. As I found myself saying over and over: This is what all the islands must have looked like when they were young. All the other high islands I’ve seen are remnants of volcanoes, shards of the cone or the crater’s edge worn down by millions of years of wind and rain. But what’s amazing about the Hawaiian chain is, of course, that it includes an island that is still in the process of being formed!

I have to report that we did not quite make it to where the hot lava is flowing into the sea, but it hardly mattered since there are distinct and obviously comparatively recent lava flows everywhere you look: A’a lava — the sharp, broken kind that is supposedly called a’a because that’s the sound you make when you walk on it (I wonder if this is etymologically correct, it is what everybody tells you…):

aa lava

and pahoehoe lava, which is smooth and sometimes  almost shiny:

Here is a photo of yours truly sitting at the edge of what I think was the 1992 flow in the National Park that reached the ocean and cut off the road.

me and the lava

We also paid a visit to the volcano goddess Pele’s home: the Kilauea crater, which was emitting large clouds of poisonous gas and steam (which were blowing away from us fortunately)….

kilauea

…and glowing magnificently red and orange at night!

kilauea at night

There were also more marae (or heiau as they are called here). This is the one at Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook’s career came to an abrupt and unexpected end:

heiau at Kealakekua Bay

Cook was killed by Hawaiians who had mysteriously welcomed him not long before. (Note to those who are interested: for a fascinating debate on the meaning of these events see Marshall Sahlins v. Gananath Obeysekere; other interesting writers on the subject are the anthropologists Nicholas Thomas and Anne Salmond and, for sheer elegance of storytelling and prose, the British historian Glynn Williams.)

But, for me, the absolute high point, and indeed one of the most moving moments of this entire trip, was the glimpse I got of the Hokule’a, the first Polynesian voyaging canoe to have been built in perhaps 800 years and a vessel I have been reading about for years. It would be hard to overstate the significance of this canoe; it was the one that sailed from Hawai’i to Tahiti on the first attempt to re-enact the ancient voyages and thereby demonstrate experimentally how it might have been done.

Hokule'a

Here she is being towed out of the harbor,

hokulea

and here is another canoe called the Makali’i which was tied up nearby:

makali'i

We were particularly pleased to see this one because Makali’i — in its Maori form as Matariki — is Dani’s middle name; it’s a widespread Polynesian name for the Pleiades. Hokule’a, incidentally, is Arcturus, Hawai’i’s zenith star.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under adventure, Big Island, expedition, Family, Hawaii, Pacific Islands, Polynesia, travel

Making the Turn: East to Vanuatu

We have made the turn. After a whirlwind visit to the lovely city of Melbourne, we flew north Brisbane and, for the first time since leaving Boston, turned east. With this leg we were also headed into completely unknown territory. Tonga was an experience, to be sure, and much of French Polynesia was new to us, but (with the exception of Australia) it has all been Polynesian and reasonably familiar by comparison with the place we were now headed to on…

air vanuatu

Vanuatu is at the eastern edge of the western Pacific, west of Fiji and Tonga and therefore outside the Polynesian triangle. It has a fascinating, complex culture and is a favorite tourist destination for Australians, but the reason we were there is that it is also has one of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific.

I have been lucky more than once on this trip and the Vanuatu leg is just another case in point. Matthew Spriggs and Stuart Bedford of ANU have been working a site at Teouma since 2004 which has yielded some of the most spectacular finds of Lapita pottery anywhere in the Pacific. They are now coming to the end of their work there and had expected to be finished by the time we reached nearby Port Vila. This was a great disappointment to me because I was really dying to see an archaeological dig, and particularly this archaeological dig, but there was just no way I could get us there in time. Then, quite unexpectedly, they had to suspend work for a week and that pushed their departure forward so that I could just make it out there before site was bulldozed over.

It was a tremendous experience. Unfortunately for Seven, he had to stay back and mind the children, and I didn’t take any photos because I wasn’t sure I should. But it was absolutely phenomenal. While I was standing there they pulled a 6-inch piece of pottery out of the ground that — I was reliably informed — was 3000 years old!

Lapita, just fyi, is the name given to the ocean-going culture that is thought to have moved rapidly out of island southeast Asia and into the western Pacific some 3000 to 5000 years ago eventually reaching Tonga and Samoa. As such, they are understood to be directly ancestral to the people who colonized Polynesia proper. Lapita sites are identified by a particular type of pottery with a range of decorative styles that correlates pretty directly with age, the most elaborate being the oldest.

Fortunately, Seven and I did get a chance to go together to the National Museum of Vanuatu the next day.

National Museum

There Stuart and a couple of the guys who work with him showed us a number of spectacular pots, both fragments and reconstructions, which were just being packed and shipped off to an exhibit in Paris — the first of its kind! Here is a picture Seven took of the example that is in the museum along with the accompanying text, which is also interesting for its several translations.

Lapita pot

lapita text

There are a vast number of languages spoken in Vanuatu (including a couple of Polynesian languages, one of which was spoken in a village near where we were staying, as we discovered on the bus ride out there). But the three official languages of the country are French, English, and Bislama, which is not that hard to decode when written but pretty darn hard to understand when spoken fast. Children apparently go to school in either French or English, but I could never figure out how people decide. Mostly people spoke English with us, even on the few occasions on which I spoke French to them :).

The people of Vanuatu are as varied as the linguistic scene suggests and I clearly have to do some more research to find out who they all are and what they speak and where they come from and all of that. But for now I’ll just leave you with a few random shots taken in and around Port Vila. Here are some musicians at the airport (this time it is a guitar):

musicians in the airport

And here are a couple of pictures from the market:

Port Vila Market

market port vila

A couple of street scenes:

port vila

truck  port vila

And a bunch of the workers going back to the mainland by boat:

boat Mele

2 Comments

Filed under adventure, expedition, Family, Pacific Islands, South Pacific, travel, Vanuatu

A Very Quick Tour

Tonga is such a complex place: this incredible hospitality; almost no tourist infrastructure to speak of (they burned the city of Nuku’alofa down in a fit of civil unrest a couple of years ago and there are still places that have not been rebuilt); a lot of highly visible poverty; an enormous number of churches; oh, and did I mention that it’s flat?

The island is like a big coral biscuit, the windward side of which is undercut in places leaving these amazing limestone shelves with holes (and even caves) in them. Up on the western end there are a series of blowholes that are not to be missed where the surf comes roaring up and crashes into these cliffs, blasting up through holes in the surface exactly like a whale. Even sounds like a whale clearing its blowhole.

windward coast Tonga

Here are a couple of shots of what you’re walking on when you get out to the edges of the island (that is where it’s not mangroves and mud):

coral

coral

And here’s what it looks like from another angle:

Tongan coast

We also visited the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, but which I believe is the largest megalithic structure in the Pacific outside of Easter Island. Here it is, with some people we met there for scale.

Ha'amonga Trilithon

This, actually, is what I went to Tonga to see, because until you see something with your own eyes….well, you’re pretty much just faking it.

6 Comments

Filed under adventure, expedition, Oceania, Pacific Islands, South Pacific, Tonga, travel

More Mysterious Stonework in the Forest

Up in the ‘Opunohu Valley on Mo’orea there is a very intriguing marae complex with a large number of excavated platforms (many with large trees growing inside),

Mo'orea marae

and, if you wander a bit farther away, lots more of what look like unexcavated platforms.

It was obviously an enormous complex back in the day. The valley itself is wide and deep and has a river running through it, so it seems not at all surprising that there would have been a large and powerful population residing here. The platforms are scattered through a glade of mape trees — this is the tree with roots like drapery, sometimes called the Tahitian chestnut — which seems to lie at a certain altitude on the mountainside. As you get up out of the glade, you also leave the marae area behind. The fact that there are large trees growing inside the platforms suggests how long they have been abandoned, but it also made me wonder if these trees grew here in the days when the platforms were in use. They are particularly beautiful, tall and sinuous, with these astonishing roots:

mape tree

As to whether there were such trees on the marae compound 200 hundred years ago, you could probably answer this question by looking at the engravings from the early European expeditions (no copies of which I happen to have with me at the moment). The 18th and early 19th c. explorers had artists with them who recorded — I think remarkably faithfully — the places they saw. I have been struck by how much the coastline in this bay looks like the drawings that were made on Cook’s voyages — in fact this is one of the places he stopped. They also shot the 1984 Mel Gibson/Anthony Hopkins Bounty movie here, which we watched the other night. I thought the scenes with the Tahitian girls were ridiculous (were they instructed to giggle hysterically as they were being hauled by the sailors onto the ship?). It was fun, though, to see the line of the mountains in the movie exactly as it looked off our deck.

And here is a little mystery. Up by the marae Seven and I read about something that was described as an “archery platform.”

archery platform image

This was news to me; I had always understood that bows and arrows never made it to Polynesia. The text at the site suggested that the ancient Polynesians used the bow for contests only, i.e. not for war (and that this was a measure of their good sense). But, if it had been me, I would certainly have used it for hunting. An excellent way to catch the birds they brought with them, which, despite being nominally domesticated, run wild all over the islands, crowing from dawn to dusk. Ah, the sound of Polynesia…

Polynesian rooster

4 Comments

Filed under adventure, expedition, Oceania, Pacific Islands, Polynesia, Society Islands, South Pacific, Tahiti, travel

Mutiny on the …

We all liked the mood lighting on Virgin America, but for sheer old-fashioned service I think Air Tahiti takes the prize. Our plane back to Tahiti from the Marquesas was 3 hours late, which meant that we missed our connection to Ra’iatea and Air Tahiti paid for our taxi, put us up in a good Papeete hotel, paid for our dinner and faxed through to the hotel in Ra’iatea where we were supposed to be staying so that we wouldn’t get charged for the night. When was the last time anyone got that kind of treatment on a domestic flight in the States? Mind you, I think we also paid almost as much for our domestic flights within French Polynesia as we did for the whole rest of the trip, still, it was a pleasant surprise.

Or would have been if it hadn’t been for the mutiny it almost incited. We are staying in a lot of different kinds of places on this trip: pensions, hotels, bungalows, condos, even a house in one place, and even though our accommodation in the Marquesas was definitely on the upscale end, the boys seem convinced that I am going to land them in a fleapit. “We just don’t have that much confidence in your choices, Mum,” according to Abraham.

Dani, who has a taste for large international hotels, refers to these dubious and unsatisfactory establishments as “Motels.” So, when Air Tahiti put us up in a large expensive hotel chain with multiple bars, restaurants, and a lagoonarium (!), he and Matiu were in hog heaven. Soft bed, nice sheets, huge flat screen TV, room service, the works. Unfortunately there was no time to enjoy any of it because we got there about 8 pm and had to get up at 5 the next morning for the next flight out to Ra’iatea.

No one got enough sleep; the airport was mobbed with people flying out to all the islands; we were a bit late and barely made the plane; all the seats were taken and we had to sit separately (no assigned seating on these flights); and to top it off, the place I’d booked on Ra’iatea turned out to be a spartan one-bedroom cottage with linoleum on the floors and thin mattresses, set in a pretty coconut grove on the water. The owners were very nice and, under the right circumstances, it would have been perfect. We had a terrific card game on the veranda, watched the fish jumping in the lagoon, made friends (in a manner of speaking) with a gecko who lived on the ceiling and even managed to make a meal for ourselves (ramen, cocoa, grilled toast and cheese, not exactly gourmet, but kid-friendly). But you may imagine what we endured along the way. “You took us away from that to bring us here?

We did. I just had to get to Ra’iatea to see the Taputapuatea marae — which is similar to the Kamuihei site on Nuku Hiva, but different in interesting respects. One big difference is the location: Taputapuatea is built on an east-facing promontory, looking out to a major pass through the reef. It’s a commanding position, wide open to the sea and the sky and very visible from several directions. At Kamuihei you are up in the forest, it’s dim and green and there are huge trees with great twisting roots and big tumbled blocks of black basalt. It’s a really different feeling; though the basic structures are quite similar.

Here are a couple of pictures of Taputapuatea:

Taputatpuatea marae

and another with Dani in the background, picking his way over the coral (that’s a motu in the distance, a little islet on the reef):

Dani at Taputatpuatea

Luckily for me there was a really lovely beach by the marae, which is itself set in a beautiful garden, so we spent most of the day there, me wandering around looking at rocks…

taputapuatea

…and Seven and the boys swimming. Seven opened some kind of huge mollusk and fed it to the fish, which I think is what they are looking at so intently here:

snorkeling

Finally, I thought you might like to see “George” the gecko who kept us entertained for quite a while…

George the gecko


5 Comments

Filed under adventure, expedition, Oceania, Pacific Islands, Polynesia, Ra'iatea, Society Islands, South Pacific, travel