The centrepiece of Manchester Museum’s temporary exhibition Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: The Statues of Easter Island, which opened on 1st April is the statue of Moai Hava. This 2m high 2.5 ton basalt statue has been kindly lent by the British Museum as part of its National Programmes. Until recently Moai Hava was displayed at World Museum Liverpool. These impressive statues enjoy an iconic status across the world. Drawing upon the recent fieldwork undertaken by experts from University College London, the University of Manchester, Bournemouth University and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), University of Highlands and Islands as well as Rapa Nui and Chilean archaeologists, Manchester Museum’s temporary exhibition explores how the statues were made, the significance of the different kinds of stone, and the quarries where they were carved, and the meaning that they had for the people of the island who are known as Rapanui. In addition the main exhibition gallery features two large replica statues or moai, each 2.5m high and surmounted by a topknot or pukao. These impressive copies were made by Chris Dean (who did the sculpting) and Peter Spinks of Freeform Studios Ltd and Creative Models respectively.
About one thousand statues or moai are known from the island and most of them were carved in a quarry at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. The rock is known as volcanic tuff and is relatively soft when newly exposed. When it is weathered, and, under certain lighting conditions, it has a luminosity, which lends the statues an otherworldly character. This may explain why the Rapanui went to such lengths to make their statues out of this material. The statues were carved in the bedrock still attached by a keel.
About half still remain in the quarry in various stages of completion and are sometimes so jumbled together it would have been hard to remove them without damaging others. Some writers have suggested that they were not intended to be removed and erected, and that they are really large rock art or petroglyphs, in which the island excels. The massive statue known as El Gigante, which is still in the quarry at Rano Raraku, is 65 feet (20 metres) tall and is estimated to have weighed up to 270 tons. Paro, the largest statue erected, is almost over 30 feet (10 metres) tall and weighed 82 tons. We cannot be sure how the statues were moved but experimental work has shown they can moved on rollers, on a wooden frame resting on wooden rails, and even ‘walked’ by two teams pulling alternately on ropes, similar in some respects to how one would move a heavy fridge or freezer unit. A fine artist’s impression of the latter process, which appeared in National Geographic magazine (July 2012), provides the image at the entrance to the Museum’s temporary exhibition gallery, although we are not saying this is the only way the statues were moved.
The exhibition also shows a representation of one of the three hundred or so ceremonial platforms or ahu on which many, but by no means all, the statues stood. Each community on the island had its own ahu and frequently these are found on the coast. They follow a common design with a ramp of cobbles facing an open square or plaza with carefully shaped vertical stones on the seaward side, sometimes with crematoria for disposal of the dead. They seem to have been added to over time and some ahu contain pieces of broken stone statue and have ramps for launching canoes. The stones used to construct the ahu were quarried and gathered all over the island and sometimes petroglyphs were carved on them. The ahu were the ceremonial centres for the communities where special rituals took place. Early accounts describe the natives kneeling in front of the statues and raising and lowering their hands as if in prayer. The intervention of important ancestors was invoked through the statues. The eyes of the statues were inserted at particular times which ‘activated’ them but otherwise they may have been dormant (pers.comm. Prof Colin Richards).
Not all statues were erected on ahu and some have been found along the roads or trackways that lead away from Rano Raraku. Previously these statues were interpreted as having been abandoned in transit when the supply of wood failed but work by the British team shows they were erected in these locations intentionally as a way of marking the approaches to the quarries, which must have been regarded as a deeply meaningful, symbolically and spiritually important space. It is interesting that the statues or moai occur at fairly regular intervals along the trackways. A similar arrangement can be seen in a sketch of Ahu Hanga Paukura published in Katherine Routledge’s book The Mystery of Easter Island (1919: fig.77). A number of toppled moai can be seen leading up to the ahu, another special place in the eyes of the Rapanui.
Seeing, which we refer to in the exhibition in a section called ‘Polynesian Gaze’, was an important aspect of the Rapanui’s belief system, and recent fieldwork conducted by the British team has revealed two eyes carved into the surface of the quarry at Puna Pau where the cylindrical pukao or topknots were obtained. This small volcanic crater has effectively been hollowed out from within by the removal of over 1000 cubic metres of red scoria. Red was an important colour to Polynesians because it represented power, vitality and authority, making the Puna Pau scoria ideal for use as a headdress to decorate the head of a moai. Being cylindrical the pukao could be rolled to their destination but at least fourteen can still be seen close to the quarry.
Whilst the project has been in development a number of colleagues have asked me whether Moai Hava is the only statue to leave Rapa Nui or Easter Island. Moai Hava is one of two moai that were taken from the island at the time of the HMS Topaze expedition of 1868. The other, perhaps the better known of the two moai, is Hoa Hakananai’a, and this is on display at the British Museum. It was recovered from the settlement of Orongo on the extreme south-western tip of the island. It was inside a house which no doubt explains the good state of preservation of its petroglyphs, which include dance paddles, birdmen and other motifs. A detailed discussion of this moai can be found in an article by Mike Pitts et al. in last year’s Antiquaries’ Journal (2014). The inscription on the base of Moai Hava states it came from this naval expedition and was presented by Queen Victoria to the British Museum in 1869.
A number of colleagues have asked about the circumstances in which the statues were acquired. Jo Anne Van Tillburg’s book Remote Possibilities Hoa Hakananai’a and HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui (Trustees of the British Museum, 2006) gives an account of the removal of Moai Hava from the island and shows a drawing of the tattooed image of the event on the arm of one of the Rapanui (image 59). The book also lists others that are in other countries of the world: three in the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago, Chile; three moai heads in the Musee de L’homme in Paris; a moai, a head and a pukao or topknot in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA; a pukao, statue head and torso in the Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, bought back by the Franco-Belgian expedition of 1934-5; a moai in the Corporacion Museo Fonck, Vian del Mar, Chile; a moai in the Museo Arquueologico de la Serena, La Serena; a head in the Auckland Museum, Auckland, New Zealand; and a moai in the Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand. Details, photos and drawings of many of them can be found in Remote Possibilities. It is sobering to think that if you consider complete moai, there are only about half a dozen examples in different countries of the world, and our exhibition has one of them.
Of course this is not the first time that statues and even whole monuments have been removed from lands around the world. The extraordinary scale and artistic quality of the Easter Island statues made them attractive to institutions which had the means to acquire them; their size and weight obviously made it difficult for private individuals to take away. The question inevitably will be asked whether such pieces ought not to be returned to the place from which they came. The same question has been asked of Egyptian artefacts and even more high profile artefacts. One could argue that there are sufficient moai and Egyptian antiquities for some of them to be spared for the enjoyment and education of people in different countries of the world, where these artefacts serve as ambassadors for their respective countries of origin. Boris Johnson in the Telegraph recently commenting on the destruction of antiquities in Nineveh by IS was grateful that many antiquities from Mesopotamia had been removed to Europe and America. Thank heavens that some of these wonderful pieces survive somewhere in the world and hopefully serve as a source of inspiration and help restore the pride and dignity of populations brutally robbed of their heritage in this way. You could say that institutions that hold such material would say that wouldn’t they, and that such objects ought to be returned to the country of origin. However, there is no reason to suppose the moai taken by HMS Topaze were removed from the island against the wishes of the islanders. The Swiss ethnographer Alfred Metraux (1902-1963) wrote that ‘Easter Island civilisation died between 1862 and 1870’, though I’m sure the present day Rapanui would dispute that.
In the case of Rapa Nui the statues had ceased to hold the importance for the islanders that they had had earlier. The reason for this is that the Rapanui belief system and way of life changed irrevocably after Europeans came to the island during the 18th century. The visits were greeted by islanders increasingly eager to exchange goods and favours for European and New World commodities such as close-woven textiles, metal objects and trinkets. A famous illustration by de Vancy from the time of the French visit in 1778 shows the Comte de La Pérouse measuring a standing moai whilst the Rapanui are stealing his hat. Another member of the ship’s crew is being distracted by an attractive Rapanui woman unaware that other Rapanui are picking his pockets. It must have seemed to the Rapanui that power and influence would come in future not from invoking the ancestors through the moai but by obtaining goods from passing ships.
Later visits by European ships’ crews revealed that fewer and fewer statues were standing. The last statue, Paro, was toppled in 1862-4. Although it has been argued that some statues were lowered carefully as grave covers, others were toppled deliberately in order to break off their heads. This seems to have happened at a time when the clans of the island were fighting amongst themselves. Warfare was common amongst Polynesians (pers.comm Prof.Colin Richards) but the toppling of the statues, the discovery of large numbers of sharp obsidian implements called mata’a and stories about fighting in Rapanui oral tradition all seem to point to the violent collapse of traditional Rapanui culture but not everyone would agree with this interpretation. The Birdman cult, the annual race to bring back the first Sooty Tern egg of the season from the tiny island of Motu Nui off the western tip of Rapa Nui, if its inception is indeed late, as may be hinted by some writers, may have been created as a way of avoiding the increasingly bitter outbreaks of fighting that followed first contact with Europeans. The Birdman had absolute power over the island for a year but did not have to compete personally in the race if he was represented by a champion.
During the 1860s about one thousand Rapanui, including the king, his son and priests, were removed forcibly to serve as indentured labour in South America. Many died on plantations, in the mines or in domestic service until an international outcry led to the repatriation of the survivors. Sadly the small number who finally returned to Rapa Nui brought with them diseases to which those who’d remained had little or no resistance. Large numbers of Rapanui died and others fled the island, which was increasingly given over to sheep grazing. After the island was acquired by Chile, in 1888, conditions very slowly began to improve for the Rapanui and the population recovered from an all-time low of just 111 people. Since that time the construction of an airport, the start of regular flights to and from the mainland and especially tourism have brought in much needed income for the inhabitants and helped to restore their sense of identity and dignity, though some would say it has been a mixed blessing. The island received World Heritage status in 1996.
The purpose of the Making Monuments exhibition, however, is not to tell the detailed history of the island but to explore the meaning these spectacular statues and their topkknots had for the Rapanui. We have not dealt with the unique RongoRongo script or the Birdman cult in Making Monuments exhibition except to refer to them in passing; they will be discussed in more detail in the exhibition booklet. Nor do we dwell on that other hotly debated topic of Easter Island studies the ecological disaster theory. Instead the exhibition focuses on the statues, how and where they were made, how they were moved around the island and the meaning that they had for the Rapanui.
Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Statues from Easter Island opened on 1st April and runs until 6th September 2015.
This blog post could not have been written without the help and support of a wide range of contributors to the exhibition project. The content of this article reflects the content of the Making Monuments exhibition at Manchester Museum, which was developed with Prof.Colin Richards of the University of Manchester’s Department of Archaeology. Some information comes from the AHRC funded fieldwork undertaken by the institutions referred to earlier. However, readers should not infer that Colin and his colleagues would necessarily agree with everything written here. The subject of Easter Island/Rapa Nui is contentious. The Headley Trust and The Dorset Foundation generously funded the temporary exhibition. Objects were lent by the British Museum, Horniman Museum and Gardens, Pitt Rivers Museum, Liverpool Museums, Natural History Museum (London), Natural History Museum (Oxford), Gallery Oldham and a number of private individuals, to all of whom we are very grateful.