Motu Akea Well, Tokelau

The Big Picture Portfolio, #7 Buy the PrintWatch the Film

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Not a single person lives on this little islet. It’s mostly a quiet place. Yet in the middle of the tiny island is this – a shallow well lined with coral slabs. The water is brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water), but one could be very glad to know about this indeed. Drinkable water is key for people to live anywhere, and on Pacific atolls it is often challenging to find.


Where: Motu Akea, southernmost islet of Nukunonu
What:  An excavated depression, lined with coral slabs on all four sides
When: Origin precedes contemporary memory
Getting there: 30-45 minutes by boat from Nukunonu Village
Water: Brackish, best at low tide

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Surviving in an environment like this is no small task. It makes for a pretty postcard but don’t wish yourself straight there just yet.

Atolls are more of the ocean than they are of the land. Fresh water, accordingly, can be tough to find. There are no rivers or streams, indeed no surface water at all unless it’s salty (in which case it is truly abundant). Drinkable water – except if it’s been shipped in from outside – can be found sparingly in two places: the sky and the ground.

Yet archaeology indicates that people survived – or even thrived – here for hundreds of years. During that time they must have obtained water, and regularly. This well is perhaps one such place, where a freshwater lens sits not far below the surface.

Other tricks included hollowing out the base of a coconut tree and carving channels into the trunk to collect rainwater. You still see ’em around on some of the motus (though the first one had to be pointed out to me). Ingenious.


Got a haircut today. Never gave instructions, just kinda nodded a few times. She knew exactly what to do. Big fan of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa campus barber shop!

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.

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


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.


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.