Since returning from the Ke EMu conference in Washington on Saturday I’ve been thinking about Manchester Museum’s next temporary exhibition which will be about the stone statues or moai of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. We are in the fortunate position of being able to borrow a statue called moai Hava from the British Museum, and a selection of supporting objects from the BM and other museums. The exhibition will draw upon the results of fieldwork on Easter Island undertaken by Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester’s Department of Archaeology. Our ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues of Easter Island’ exhibition will open in early April 2015 and run for six months in the Museum’s temporary exhibition gallery.
It is incredibly exciting to work with material from Easter Island, which must rank as some of the highest profile archaeology in the world. When Europeans encountered the island for the first time early in the 18th century they were astonished to see the statues. They found it difficult to reconcile the scale of the statues with the apparent poverty of the islanders, or RapaNui as they call themselves, and the absence of sources of materials such as timber with which to move and erect the stones. The theory that at some point prior to the European visits the great civilisation responsible for the stone statues had collapsed is present in the earliest historical accounts and much ink has flowed since then to try and explain the disaster which befell the inhabitants. During the 1970s palaeobotanist John Flenley sampled the peat in the volcanic craters to study the history of the island’s vegetation and by studying the pollen in the cores showed that palm trees had originally covered the island. The felling of the palm trees for farmland and for timber with which to move the statues is thought to have brought about an environmental disaster leading to the collapse of the islanders’ way of life. The large numbers of obsidian tools such as those featured in an earlier post on the Ancient Worlds blog were thought to be evidence of the islanders’ nightmarish descent into violence, anarchy and civil war.
The various theories to account for Easter Island’s decline have been hotly debated. More recently some archaeologists and anthropologists have blamed contact with Europeans for the collapse of Easter Island’s traditional culture rather than an environmental catastrophe. The spread of diseases against which the islanders had no immunity and the notorious ‘black-birding’ raids to pressgang labourers to work in Peru’s guano mines in the 1860s reduced the native Rapanui population to little more than a hundred people. What the population had been before then is anybody’s guess but at the time of the first European visits it thought to have been about 3000, and a figure as high as 20,000 has been suggested for the earlier period.
The Manchester Museum exhibition will focus on the statues. Professor Colin Richards and his colleagues have recently excavated a stone quarry at Puna Pau where headdress stones or topknots for the stone statues were carved. We propose as part of the exhibition to supplement the original material with reconstructions of an ahu or ceremonial platform on which some of the moai or stone statues once stood, a pukau or topknot that would have sat on top of the head of one of the moai, and the quarry face at Puna Pau to show visitors the nature of the stone working on the island.
As part of the exhibition we will also explore the part the statues have played in stimulating sculptors such as Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915). This influence can also be seen in popular culture. Easter Island statues frequently feature in comics and graphic novels for example. When I was in Washington last week I somewhat furtively visited a comics store to try and obtain copies of the Adventures of Batman, The Mighty Thor and Uncle Scrooge. Had museum colleagues seen me in there I’d have protested it was only to gather materials for the Easter Island exhibition. In The Mighty Thor (1982), for instance, the superhero battles giant stone statues from Saturn which are clearly inspired by the moai. If any readers have copies and might be willing to lend them for our exhibition please let me know.
Another treat during the Ke EMu conference in Washington was visiting the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) and seeing another Easter Island statue or moai from Ahu O’Pepe. An image on the label shows an Easter Island head with its eye re-inserted. We intend to recreate one of the eyes as part of the exhibition using coral and obsidian. So there’s lots to look forward to in this exhibition and there’s great excitement at the Museum as the project gets under way.