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.

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?!