Tokelau Day of Archaeology 2011

We made this video for the 2011 Day of Archaeology, an event that saw many other archaeologists around the world take a bit of time to provide an insight into their working day. It was great fun to make – thanks to everyone who agreed to be included – even if uploading it from Nukunonu proved to be a bit of a challenge!

I was on Nukunonu as a part of the Tokelau Science Education Research Project (TSERP), and this video includes many members of the team both local and outsider.

Check out the bigger project’s impressive results at:

Coral-Lined Well on a Pacific Atoll

Short film from archaeological reconnaissance survey on one of the remote islets of Nukunonu, featuring a follow-up interview with Mr. Ioane Nui Tumua facilitated by Mr. Mika Perez back in town on the main islet.

The location featured is a fresh/brackish water source. As Mr. Tumua indicates, it was (relatively) recently rebuilt however its use as a source of drinking water is likely to be of considerable time depth. He also remarks of a connection between the well and another important event on an atoll – precipitation.

In modern times most drinking water on Nukunonu is still collected – primarily from the metal roofs of houses. In the past, however, scarcity was more marked. Subterranean lenses such as the one featured here, as well as carved basins in the trunks of coconut trees and containers such as coconut shells themselves – used to gather and hold rainwater – were also critical sources even if you had to get to them by boat.

This video goes with the Motu Akea Well entry on the Big Picture Portfolio.

Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau

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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