[Culturetalk] Pac News Rapa Nui article
EliseH at spc.int
Fri Sep 25 22:25:44 EDT 2009
In Pac News Sept 8 2009
Easter Island mystery probed
It is one of the great mysteries that has baffled explorers,
archaeologists and anthropologists alike - what was the meaning of the
giant Easter Island statues and what role did they play in the demise of
this once-complex civilisation?
But since the first non-islanders arrived in the remote archipelago half
a millennium ago, another equally profound question has niggled away at
the backs of their minds: where did they get those hats?
Now British experts, the first to work on the island since the Edwardian
archaeologist Katherine Routledge in 1914, believe they are a step
closer to resolving the puzzle of the huge red boulders that sit astride
the massive monolithic heads in the world's most remote inhabited place.
Dr Colin Richards from the University of Manchester and Dr Sue Hamilton
from University College London have discovered the existence of a road
used to transport the outcrops of volcanic rock leading to a previously
unstudied "sacred" quarry where the material was mined.
They have also found an axe believed to have been left at the quarry as
an offering confirming the site's quasi-religious meaning to the ancient
Dr Hamilton believes the "hats" may have represented a plait or top knot
worn by the elite chieftains, who were engaged in a bitter struggle for
prestige and power, which was symbolised by the building of ever-taller
statues known as moai created in memory of their ancestors.
But while more than 1000 statues have been found on the island, only
70-75 hats have been discovered, suggesting the headgear was an added
symbol of power.
As well as weighing several tonnes, the "hats" are carved from a crater
full of red scoria, a volcanic pumice whose colour symbolises high birth
and status. They may have been later additions to existing statues to
boost them beyond their rivals.
"Chieftain society was highly competitive and it has been suggested that
they were competing so much that they over-ran their resources," said Dr
It is believed these elite leaders mobilised vast teams of workers to
harvest the rock, which was then transported several kilometres on
rolling tree trunks to the three-storey-high statues, which were placed
on special platforms to enhance their position of grandeur.
Dr Hamilton said: "The quarry is in a secret place which is invisible
from other parts of the island and the noise of production would have
been contained by the crater. These people lived in a successful and
well-organised society - the Easter Island of 500 years ago was a
managed living environment."
The academics, who will spend a month each year for the next five years
investigating their findings, which include an obsidian adze - an 18cm
axe-like tool which was used for squaring up logs or hollowing out
timber - believe the first "hats" appeared between 1200 and 1300.
This coincided with a dramatic increase in the size of the statues
across the island.
The exact cause of the dramatic decline of Easter Island is hotly
debated but it is agreed that it was brought on by a dramatic crisis,
possibly as a result of resource depletion, war or disease.
Scientists are battling to keep the indigenous traditions alive.
Each major excavation by the British team has been accompanied by a
traditional "umu" ceremony with locals dressing up in white feathers and
building ovens out of hot stones to offer cooked offerings to placate
the island's spirits.
"We are excavating a living culture so we have to be very careful," said
Dr Hamilton. "There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot
do and we have to respect them."
Dr Richards added: "It is clear the quarry had a sacred context as well
as an industrial one. The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living
thing and after they carved the rock, the spirits entered the statues."
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