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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Pulemelei Mound, Samoa

The Big Picture Portfolio, #5 Buy the PrintWatch the Film

Though it’s absolutely covered in vegetation these days, this photograph shows the surface of the rock platform or mound known as Pulemelei – often lauded as the largest example of pre-European architecture in the whole of the Pacific – sloping off into the surrounding jungle.


What: Rectangular monumental mound or platform built from volcanic rock
Where: Off the south coast of the island of Savai’i, Samoa
Known as: The largest ancient (pre-European) structure in the Pacific
How: Local materials, three phases of construction
When: AD 1100-1300
Context: Part of a large complex, Pulemelei is immediately surrounded by over 60 other features, and central to a regional pattern of settlement
Possible Functions: Chiefly residence, pigeon snaring (elite activity), religious/ceremonial foundation, inter-island dynamics with Tongans and/or other Polynesians

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Out there on Savai’i, the jungle is swallowing the Pulemelei site. Again.

In the colorful shot above one might think the scene to be just a clearing in the jungle, but what’s pictured is actually the top of a massive ancient platform built out of thousands of dry laid stones, sloping away to the south and the sea, now covered by vegetation. The Google Maps satellite imagery shows that the site was recently cleared (probably ~2004 when archaeological excavations were carried out, see below).

The big things in the archaeological record – like Pulemelei – can almost sometimes seem a protest to our logic, a blow to our intelligence, as people and as archaeologists. So much effort spent, so obviously important, but why?

Lost in time, as they say, places like these persist from past lives, cultures, and dynamics yet they do not hold all the answers. While any question may be asked, only certain questions may be addressed. There is a limit to what we can know.

But wondering is not always a bad thing. It illuminates the limits of our knowledge and pushes us towards understanding what we can. Seeing the archaeological record is a constant process of accumulating observations and experiences that eventually can provide new insights themselves.

The roots grow deeper, pushing rocks this way and that, collapsing walls, and channeling water. Pulemelei is a good reminder that archaeological sites – even those made of stone – will not last forever. They have finite lives and will only be seen by a finite number of people. How do we treat them?

Time waits for no man, and the jungle for no site.


I’m pulling together this post on my last day here in the South Pacific, this time around at least. It’s been an incredible four plus months down here working on several different archaeological projects, meeting loads of remarkable people, and getting a good first look at this part of Oceania.

It’s back to Hawai’i tonight, and then onward to Arizona tomorrow for a quick visit. Suze and I are setting up shop in Honolulu for the next stretch looking forward to maybe – just maybe – a little more peace and quiet.

Yeah right.


2007  Martinsson-Wallin, Wallin, and Clark. The Excavation of Pulemelei Site 2002-2004. Archaeology in Oceania 42 Supplement:41-59.

The Traveling Moai, Rapa Nui

The Big Picture Portfolio, #3

The Traveling Moai, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) near Rano Raraku
Known as the “traveling” moai, its stoic expression and permanent appearance hides a secret. First it was quarried and moved out of that crater in the background, but more recently it has literally toured the world. A real rolling stone!


What: A moai, or stone statue carved to resemble a human head and torso

Where: The island of Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) in the South Pacific Ocean

Notable Date(s): ~

Culture(s): Polynesian

Seen As: Artifact, landscape



You’d think artifacts of this size would be pretty easy to keep track of, but that’s not quite the case.

Heyerdahl (I think on his 55-56 trip to the island with Skjolsvold and buddies) was working a bunch at Anakena.  But Skjolsvold may have been doing some work at Tongariki.  Heyerdahl decided over at Tongariki that he’d try moving a moai “refrigerator style”… that is “walking” a moai.  So he used the traveling moai (one of many that was just heaped up at the site).  His experiments worked, but also did some damage to the statue (I think if you look closely you can see rope marks on the head and belly).

Some time after that (maybe 1960’s-ish) the Japanese (working with Chile, and maybe Poland??) were restoring Ahu Tongariki.  The Japanese made a huge investment by bringing a crane to the island for the restoration (crane is still there and used today).  In return, the island sent the traveling moai with the Japanese to go on display during the World’s Fair at Osaka (1970, i think).  Subsequently, the moai was returned to Rapa Nui.

I’m not real sure on this one, but it may be the ONLY moai that has ever left the island for display in another country and actually returned to Rapa Nui.

That’s from Britton Shepardson, an archaeologist who’s done a significant amount of work on Rapa Nui over the past decade or so and also been busy on the educational side of things. Interesting stuff.


It appears that I’ve been Should Be Digging for a long time, even if I didn’t have this blog. This particular shot comes from a field season spent on Rapa Nui in the summer of 2005.

As far as photography and archaeology goes, Rapa Nui has got to be one for the best places on the face of the planet to combine the two. The sheer magnitude of the archaeological record, coupled with the landscape of such a remote island and special people, is really all too much to be able to put into words. But don’t take my word for it.

A special place, in the past and in the present.


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?!