Pulemelei Mound, Samoa

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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.

FACTS:

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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MYSTERY:

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.

ASIDE

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.

LINKAGE

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