South Shore Petroglyphs, Oʻahu

The Big Picture Portfolio, #9Buy the PrintWatch the Film

With all the modern sights to see, it’s easy to buzz right by this spot on the southeastern coast of O’ahu. Yet tucked quietly within wild geologic formations, killer fishing spots, and crashing waves, there is evidence of what people were seeing a long time ago.


Where: O’ahu, Hawaiian Islands
:  Petroglyphs carved into a slab of volcanic tuff within a sea cave
: Ancient Hawaiians
Petroglyphs carved: AD 1100-1810
Last known volcanic activity: 7,000 years ago

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How long will they last? The natural forces of surf, wind, and rain more or less rage on this spot, which no doubt is constantly changing. The petroglyphs themselves are somewhat protected, tucked away in a small sea cave, but they also have the destructive tendencies of modern people to contend with.

You can see what is left of fewer than a half dozen petroglyphs at this spot. It is said that there used to more petroglyphs in the cave, that the panel containing what is left was much larger not so long ago. While much of it may have succumbed to more natural fates, at least one section was chiseled out and carried off quite recently.

Petroglyphs are the personal traces of people that naturally transcend time. There’s a difference between knowing that people were merely around an area in ancient times, and seeing the evidence that someone was there – in an exact spot – with your own two eyes. Plus, petroglyphs are always fun to find, often require a bit of hunting around.

In that spirit, I’ll pin the best parking area from which to set off finding them if you decide to go see for yourself! Just park there, scramble down to the coast, and take a good look around in that bay and you should find them. In any case, a wander along this coast is beautiful (just watch your step, and stay well away from the surf as this is a notorious area for people getting swept off ledges!)


Thanks for reading, and thanks to Bob, Hiroko, and Padraic for a great day out (visiting from American Samoa)!

Polishing Facets, Leone, American Samoa

The Big Picture Portfolio, #6

The last light fades away on the ancient foaga of Tutuila, coastal polishing facets near the Tataga-Matau stone quarry site in American Samoa. Leone Bay quietly darkens in the background, while saltwater pools reflect fading light and passing clouds. This is a series of foaga, or polishing facets, formed by people in final step of making stone tools (primarily adzes or matau) hundreds or even thousands of years ago. A long stretch of this coastline is covered by these unique and quiet features, this being one of many impressive areas.


Where: The island of Tutuila, American Samoa, 53 square miles
What:  A natural shelf of volcanic rock, basalt, into which basins have been worn over the years by people working stone on stone
When: From as early as 3,000 years ago
Close to: Tataga-matau Prehistoric Quarry, on the National Register of Historic Places
How many: Hundreds of basins (thousands of adzes?!)
Where Tutuilan adzes have been found:  Chemical analyses show trade/movement from here to Manu’a, Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and the Cook Islands

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I kept coming back to this place the several months I lived on Tutuila, and I’ll go back when I return. The late light, the worn stone, the waves. Deep thoughts may come and go, but then there’s a simpler kind of question that you really can’t help but wonder, “how long would it take me to grind out a basin like ONE of these?”

I reckon I’d be there a long, long time. Even though the production line has long been abandoned, when you recognize where the material came from (mostly a massive quarry in a nearby valley), how it was initially shaped (a reduction sequence using other stone tools), where it was polished up and finished (right here on the water), and where it eventually went (all over the Pacific), you gain an appreciation for those people of so long ago. You are seeing one of the ways that they were – literally – shaping their landscape.

If you have to labor away grinding stone on stone, this is one hell of a place to do it. Yet work being work, what kind of “office dynamics” were going on here? As I stumble about looking for a place to watch the sun sink into the water I conclude that there is more than one preferential seat in this house, and finding them all is going to require many more visits.


The summer is long gone, and I’ve finished this post from a desk back in Honolulu! Good to be home but the South Pacific ain’t so shabby.


The Adze Quarries of Tutuila. John Enright (2001), CRM.

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Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau

The Big Picture Portfolio, #4 Buy the PrintWatch the Film

Mulifenua Point, Nukunonu Islet, Tokelau

One of the most remote atolls in the Pacific, and Polynesians found it!  When exactly? We are trying to figure it out! But in the meantime, this is a view back onto the islet of Nukunonu (a name that also refers to the nearby village, and the atoll itself), which are all part of Tokelau.


Location: Mulifenua Point, Nukunonu Islet, Tokelau

Time of Settlement: Prehistoric, radiocarbon dates posit a maximum of ~1,100-600 cal. before present (~850-1350 AD) for Tokelau

Mode of Transport: Double-hulled or outrigger canoes

Closest Major Island: Savai’i, Samoa – 500 kilometers of open ocean to the south

Stuff People Brought: Volcanic stone (e.g. basalt), plants (e.g. pandanus), and animals (e.g. pig, dog, chicken, and rat, at various times)

Population Today: ~400 (Nukunonu Village)


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The distant past of Tokelau remains largely to be discovered. With remarkable natural and cultural beauty on tap, the idea that Pacific peoples both found and settled these most remote banks of coral well before Christopher Columbus ever sailed across the Atlantic only heightens the amazement of setting foot in such a place.

Each atoll is composed of many small islets, which when seen from the air appear as a coral ring upon the surface of the ocean, defining and creating a sheltered lagoon from the surrounding depths. It is possible that – despite their remoteness – these small landmasses were important stepping stones for early Polynesian voyagers who went on to settle distant places to the east like Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, and New Zealand.

Today, each atoll has only one village, each generally on the western side of its lagoon. Prehistoric layers exist under each modern settlement, but it remains possible that the very first people to arrive on Tokelau made their base(s) elsewhere. On Nukunonu the elders will tell you that once upon a time there were four separate villages!

Archaeological investigations continue with the major questions of who got here first, and when, still up for debate. No matter what, just finding this place remains a feat in 2011, just as surely it was hundreds of years ago.


Will I leave at the end of this week? Over the weekend, or early next week? Or maybe not until mid-month?

That is the way the game is played here – the servicing of these islands by the ships responsible is pretty spotty. They get here regularly enough in the end, but the fact that they sometimes have the audacity to publish and distribute a schedule borders on the hilarious. You leave when the ship leaves, not when you want (or think) you will!

So, another week or three here and then it’s back to Samoa. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to check out a site or two on Savai’i, and I’ll do my best to get something on here if I do. Happy trails!

Music performed by Alatua.

2009 Addison et al. Archaeology of Atafu, Tokelau: Some Initial Results from 2008. Rapa Nui Journal 2009:5-9.

1988 Best, Simon. Tokelau Archaeology: A Preliminary Report of an Initial Survey and Excavations


Fatu-Ma-Futi, American Samoa

Big Picture Portfolio, #2

Lovers Turned to Islands, Futu Ma Futi, South Pacific
These rocks, or “sea stacks,” rise up out of the ocean on the southern coast of Tutuila in American Samoa near the entrance to the stunning Pago Pago harbor. Folks have been sailing by for a long time and at some point a legend was born around these rocky spires in the surf, which their name reflects today.



What: Fatu-Ma-Futi, two small offshore islands (Fatu pictured) associated with an ancient coastal village and an oral legend

Where: Off the southern Coast of Tutuila, American Samoa, South Pacific

Notable Date(s): Episodic coastal presence from ~ 1400 BP

See Addison et al. (2008)

Culture(s): Polynesian

Seen As: Prominent place, landscape, seascape



A legend says that Fatu and Futi were lovers who tried to sail to Tutuila (modern day American Samoa) from Upolu (modern day Independent Samoa). They almost made it, but their boat floundered and they expired in the waves just before making it ashore.

Turned to rocks where they passed, their remains stand in the surf and the swell to this day, highly visible from both the coastal road as well as on the way in and out of magnificent Pago Pago harbor.


This is a special place on Tutuila for me, for a reason considerably less awe-inspring than the legend above. It’s special because it is along this stretch of coast that one can get away from the dogs!

Dogs sometimes seem like they’re everywhere on this island, doing their thing, and they can interfere with your thing if you’re not careful. A walk is a better idea with a big stick (or rocks at a minimum) in hand, and running… well running is often not such a good idea.

But along this glorious coastline, the dogs do not interfere. A fine route with seasalt for the face and breezes for the hair, Fatu-Ma-Futi glorious in most any conditions.



Rubha Robhanais, Outer Hebrides

The Big Picture Portfolio, #1

The Edge of the Old World, Butt of the Isle of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais), Outer Hebrides, Scotland
The Vikings would have known this corner of the world well from their journeys across the North Atlantic, and I like to think that they were suckers for the sheer ruggedness of this particular point just like me. When you stand here looking north you look across waters that lead to the arctic and the north pole. The wind blows, the surf pounds, and the imagination churns.



What: Rubha Robhanais (Scottish Gaelic) or the Butt of Lewis, a weather-battered point of ancient rock (Lewisian gneiss, some of the oldest exposed geology in Europe) [Wikipedia]

Where: The northern tip of the Isle of Lewis in the North Atlantic, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Notable Date(s): ~ BC 6500 (earliest habitation of Lewis), ~ BC 2800 (megalithic constructions), AD 1098 (Norwegian control), AD 1275 (Scottish rule), AD 1588 (Spanish Armada sails by to the north and is subsequently ravaged by storms)

Culture(s): Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Celtic, Norwegian, Scottish

Seen As: Prominent place, landscape, seascape



We’ll never know who all has passed this way and exactly when. But when you stand on this point and look out to sea you are staring across volatile waters that people have always encountered with a degree of trepidation. You are also standing on the last bit of land, at the end of the last island, in a chain of islands, off yet another island. An end in so many ways.

Yet also a beginning. People have moved across this landscape and through these waters for millenia; it is indeed an old place in many ways. Circles of standing stones, Bronze and Iron Age burials, and even Viking treasures have all been unearthed nearby.

How many souls have looked out across this ocean – or back over the rocks as their vessel passed – and paused for a moment, lost at the mercy of a fleeting thought?



Thanks for stopping by. You’ve found the first post of a “new” site, hope you like what you see!

Should Be Digging combines photographs and media with archaeological and other knowledge about our human past. My goal is to juxtapose images of natural and cultural landscapes or features with related research or “facts” – as well as general questions or “mysteries” – about humanity’s colorful journey through time and around the world.

And build a portfolio, ya know. I’ve been doing this stuff (archaeology/photography) in one form or another for years and my goal here is to create something that does justice to both.

I’m in the South Pacific now on the lookout for some new images of Polynesia’s prehistory… and history (in conjunction with some honest to goodness digging work, actually), but it’s already fun to look back on this image, the Outer Hebrides, and last summer. What a place!

So, whaddayathink?!