Oliver East’s commemoration of Maharajah the Indian Elephant’s historic journey from Edinburgh to Manchester in 1872 has stimulated a lot of interest in elephants amongst tweeters and blog contributors. Yesterday I looked at some examples of elephants in the ancient world undertaking even longer journeys than the one that Oliver is re-enacting. The time taken by elephants to cover the distance was longer in the ancient world because they did not have the benefit of walking over surfaced roads like the ones that Maharajah followed with his keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence, and it is to be hoped that Oliver doesn’t face the sort of opposition that Hannibal and his army faced from the locals when he was crossing the Alps. In this respect the elephants in Hannibal’s army proved to be a great asset because the mountain tribesmen had never seen elephants before and were intimidated by their unfamiliar appearance, their size, the noise they made and their smell.
Terracotta figurine of Galatian in Manchester Museum collection.
More often than not they were as much a problem for their own side as the enemy, but in some circumstances elephants proved to be an extremely dangerous weapon of war but One of the best examples of the debilitating psychological impact elephants had on the enemy on the battlefield in the ancient world is the ‘Elephant Victory’. The Seleucids deployed sixteen elephants against an army of Galatians in Asia Minor in 275 BC. The Galatian warriors and their horses were terrified by the elephants. Their chariots and cavalry were reduced to chaos when their horses bolted. The Galatian infantry were trampled. The Seleucid king Antiochus I took the title Soter or Saviour because of this victory. He alone had proved equal to the challenge of defeating the Galatians. Tellingly, the victory monument took the form of an elephant because really it had been thanks to the elephants that the Galatians had been defeated, not the fighting skills of Antiochus’s men. The surviving Galatians were settled by a magnanimous Antiochus in central Anatolia where they gave their name to the place: Galatia. St Paul’s letters or epistles to the Galatians were addressed to the descendants of Antiochus’s former enemies. Who would have thought that but for elephants we might not have had an important component of New Testament Christian theology.
Gruesome fate: Galatian roughly handled by an elephant
Another example of a military victory gained with the help of elephants is the battle of Heraclea. In 280 BC King Pyrrhus of Epirus in northern Greece crossed the Adriatic sea to fight the Romans in Italy on behalf of the city of Tarentum. The Tarentines were Greeks who had settled in southern Italy and were now coming under pressure from the expanding Roman Republic. Pyrrhus landed with a Hellenistic army comprising 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry and 20 elephants. The Romans attacked Pyrrhus before he could receive any reinforcements . The advantage in the battle is said to have swung backwards and forwards seven times before Pyrrhus gave the order for the elephants to attack:
‘as the Romans began to be driven back by the elephants and their horses, before they could get near the beasts, started to panic and bolt, Pyrrhus seized his opportunity: as the Romans faltered, he launched a charge with his Thessalian cavalry and routed the enemy with great slaughter.’
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Books)
Despite his victory Pyrrhus had lost 4,000 of his best troops and this has given rise to the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ meaning a victory that has been gained at great cost.
One of Pyrrhus’ elephants with calf on a southern IIalian plate
In 279 BC Pyrrhus, now reinforced by the Samnites and various other hill-tribes of southern and central Italy, fought the Roman legions again at the battle of Ausculum. Depending on which ancient historian you follow this was a one or a two day battle. At first heavily wooded ground on the edge of the swiftly flowing river caused Pyrrhus and his allies considerable difficulty. The next day at first light Pyrrhus sent troops to occupy the difficult ground, posted contingents of archers and slingers in the spaces between the elephants and made his attack. It was a fiercely contested battle until the elephants charged:
‘Against this even the Romans’courage was of little avail: they felt as they might have done before the rush of a tidal wave or the shock of an earthquake, that it was better to give way than to stand their ground to no purpose, and suffer a terrible fate without the least advantage.’
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Books)
Pyrrhus’ elephants rout the Romans at the battle of Heraclea 280 BC. Artistic license has run riot here.
Another account of the battle says the Romans deployed ‘anti-elephant’ wagons complete with burning brands and scythes as a counter measure to deal with the elephants but they were a failure. The Romans are recorded as having lost 6,000 men, Pyrrhus 3,505. Another Pyrrhic victory. On being congratulated on his success, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked ‘One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!’
Roman Republican currency bar decorated with a depiction of an elephant, presumably one of Pyrrhus’ beasts.
Pyrrhus accepted an invitation to intervene in Sicily as a champion of the Greeks against the Carthaginians. He enjoyed tremendous success but in the end alienated the people he was supposed to be defending and returned back to Italy where the Romans were once again pressing his southern Italian allies. At the battle of Beneventum in 276 BC Pyrrhus deployed his elephants but they proved to be as much a weapon against their own side as the Romans and Pyrrhus was defeated. One of the elephants had a calf (presumably the very animal depicted on the plate in the image above) and when they became separated during the battle, the calf panicked and the mother went to its aid, trampling nearby friendly troops. Pyrrhus returned to Epirus with the survivors. He campaigned in Macedonia and the Peloponnese again with elephants but was killed during confused street fighting at the city of Argos. It was a sad end to one of the great heroic characters of antiquity. Fittingly, his tomb was marked with a carving of an elephant.
One of the things that makes these characters from antiquity so deeply interesting is their use of elephants. It’s hard not to think they were just as much fascinated with the animals as we are.
Fascination with elephants? Child’s toy from Cyprus in Manchester Museum
Ceramic elephant in Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection
News that the 160 mile journey of the Indian Elephant Maharajah from Edinburgh to Manchester is being repeated by comic artist Oliver East has really struck a chord here at Manchester Museum, not least because the skeleton of Maharajah is displayed here. Maharajah walked to Manchester with his keeper in 1872. Edinburgh’s menagerie had got into financial difficulty and the animals were being auctioned. Belle Vue zoo in Manchester bought Maharajah but then had the task of bringing him back. The original plan involved putting the elephant onto a train, but Maharajah did not take kindly to this and so the elephant and his keeper Lorenzo Lawrence walked back to Manchester. It’s been suggested this may have been orchestrated by the keeper in order to make more money from undertaking the 160 mile journey on foot.
The journey took ten days covering about 20 miles each day. Maharajah was a famous attraction at the zoo and gave rides to visitors on a seat suspended between his tusks. After he died his skeleton was acquired by Manchester Museum and can be seen on display on the first floor in the Manchester gallery.
Skeleton of Maharajah at Manchester Museum
Oliver East’s commemoration of Maharaja’s journey invites comparison with other long journeys involving elephants. One of the most famous journeys in history was Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with no less than 37 elephants in 219-218 BC.
Elephants over the Alps – illustration by Andrew Howat in Neil Grant’s ‘Roman Conquests’ (1991)
Hannibal was a general from the city of Carthage in North Africa. The city had established an empire for itself in Spain after being defeated in the First Punic War by the Roman Republic. Hannibal’s attempt to defeat the Romans by taking an army overland from Spain to Italy was inspired and after defeating the legions in a number of battles, much of southern Italy went over to the Carthaginians. Rome, however, had the determination and the resources in manpower to withstand any number of defeats and after many long years of warfare, Hannibal was ordered to return to Africa. He was defeated by the Roman general Scipio at the battle of Zama in 201 BC, Carthage sued for peace and the Second Punic War came to an end.
Smaller African Forest elephant on a Carthaginian coin
Marching elephants across the Alps has captured the imagination of many people over the generations but militarily the elephants were not terribly reliable as weapons of war. Most of Hannibal’s elephants sadly died during the northern Italian winter and although Hannibal received some more as reinforcements from Carthage, they were not really a major threat once the Romans knew how to deal with them. They were only really dangerous if the opposing forces had not encountered them before. Nowadays the elephants would be seen as an incredible piece of PR. Many of Hannibal’s elephants were of the smaller African Forest elephant species and it is debatable whether they were big enough and strong enough to carry a howdah or turret. Hannibal seems to have had at least one Indian Elephant, “the Syrian”, on which he rode during his campaigns.
So Maharajah’s long journey to Manchester (160 miles) is pretty modest in comparison with that undertaken by Hannibal’s elephants (almost 1000 miles) but even that is fairly modest compared to the earlier journey from North West India to Turkey made by elephants in the army of the Macedonian general Seleucus (about 2000 miles). Even if an elephant cannot trot, gallop or jump, it is perfectly capable of making very long journeys at a slow and steady walking pace. The bones of the elephant’s foot are embedded in sponge-like tissue which, as writer H.H.Scullard says in his book The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (Thames and Hudson, 1974) acts like a shock-absorber. Maharajah’s daily stint of 20 miles or so is high in comparison with ancient journeys but it reflects the fact that he was walking on a road. Hannibal and Seleucus’s elephants had to walk at least for part of the way over the most challenging terrain ever tackled by elephants. Hannibal’s elephants averaged about 80 stades, which is about 10 miles a day.
Almost a year after it was first mooted and after six months’ hard work Making Monuments on Rapa Nui the Statues from Easter Islandopened with a Private View on Tuesday evening. About 300 people attended the official opening to hear speeches from Dr Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, Prof Colin Richards, from the Department of Archaeology, and Mathias Francke, Chilean Deputy Ambassador, and to see the exhibition for the first time.
The subject of the exhibition is monumentality on Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Perhaps the exhibition should have been called ‘monu-mentality’ because the first thing visitors see on entering the Museum foyer is the Easter Island statue called Moai Hava, which is on loan to us from the British Museum as part of its National Programme. The loan of Moai Hava and a number of other objects from the British Museum collection was kindly funded by The Dorset Foundation. Behind Moai Hava the entrance to the temporary exhibition gallery is marked by a large wall image showing Rapanui islanders ‘walking’ a statue or moai with the aid of ropes. This and other striking images used in the exhibition first appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in July 2012. However, we are not saying this is the only way statues were moved, even if the technique has been shown to be a practical way of moving large and heavy stone statues by carrying out experimental archaeology.
Once in the temporary exhibition gallery visitors see a large wall-mounted screen with a sequence of still photographs showing various sites and views on Rapa Nui. This part of the exhibition is an orientation gallery. A satellite image of the Pacific Ocean in one corner shows the extreme geographical isolation of the island. That Polynesian voyagers found it is testament to their astonishing sea-faring skills, but even they must have struggled to get there because no pigs or dogs – traditional sources of protein – have been found on Rapa Nui by archaeologists. Presumably they ate all their animals except for chickens en route. This part of the story is illustrated by a Maori wooden canoe prow from Manchester Museum’s collection. This is strictly speaking outside the historical time period and no-one really knows strictly speaking what a Polynesian voyaging canoe looked like but it illustrates the concept handsomely, together with a wooden bailer.
In comparison the Europeans who arrived off the coast of Rapa Nui during the 18th century were no more than Johnny-come-latelies. This period of the island’s history is shown by a copy of Captain Cook’s published journal on loan from the University’s John Rylands library, portraits of Cook and Rapanui islanders and a reproduction of the famous de Vancey print showing the Comte de la Perouse and members of his crew investigating a statue whilst simultaneously having their hats stolen and pockets picked by the Rapanui. Opposite, there are display cases showing a selection of items from popular culture that explore the influence of the statues. They include American comics, a First Day stamp showing Moai Hakananai’a, the other Easter Island statue taken away by the HMS Topaze expedition of 1868, and a DVD copy of the film Rapa Nui (1994).
In the adjacent display case ‘Museum Island’ the importance of tourism in the island’s economy is highlighted by a selection of souvenirs, including a copy of a RongoRongo script inscription, collected by one of the Museum’s curatorial assistants when she went to Easter Island for a holiday.
The last panel in the orientation gallery shows excavations at Puna Pau, the quarry where the famous cylindrical top knots or pukao were obtained. It makes the point that if we are to answer some of the many questions that still remain about the island we have to look to archaeology to answer them. Wall-hangings covered in RongoRongo script characters create a screen through which visitors pass in order to enter the main exhibition gallery.
The first view of the gallery is jaw-dropping: visitors are greeted by two 2.5 metre (10 feet) tall replicas of moai complete with their pukao or topknots, one of them with its eyes inserted. The replica statues were sculpted by Chris Dean of Freeform Studios Ltd with the help of Peter Spinks of Creative Models. It appears that eyes were only inserted into the statues’ eye-sockets during ceremonies or festivals. This would have activated them; once removed the statues returned to dormancy. The Rapanui invoked the intervention of powerful ancestors through the statues.
The first display case of objects from the island under the heading ‘Polynesian Gaze’ explores the concept of seeing in this culture. Stone and wooden figures, the latter with bone and obsidian eyes, a wooden staff with an anthropomorphic terminal and a pair of replica coral and scoria eyes based on those found next to a fallen moai by Rapanui archaeologist Sonia Haoa prepare the visitor for the model of the topknot quarry at Puna Pau, on which they see carved another pair of eyes. It is as if the Rapanui were showing that this is not just an inert material to be carved, it is a living entity, exposure to which was considered dangerous or tapu (the origin of our word taboo) unless appropriate rituals were observed.
A large free-standing replica pukao complete with a petroglyph of a Rapanui vessel gives an impression of the size of the statue which it would have decorated. In the course of carving pukao from the quarry it has been estimated that the Rapanui removed some 1000 cubic metres of volcanic scoria. Head wear was important in this culture but the red stone made the pukao even more significant because red represents power, vitality and authority (or mana) to Polynesians. Some fourteen pukao never left the vicinity of the quarry. Previously they were interpreted as having been abandoned in transit because of some kind of disaster that overcame the islanders. However, work by the British team of archaeologists now shows that the pukao were wayside markers intended to warn workers of their imminent arrival at the quarry and to give them an opportunity to prepare themselves for exposure to tapu and also to shed their pollution from working in the quarry on the return journey.
These ideas are developed further in a section called Ao and Po (pronounced ‘Ow’ and ‘Paw’). Volcanic craters had special significance to the Rapanui as well as Polynesians more generally as a passageway between the realm of the everyday (Ao) and the realm of shadows and spirits (Po). It is no accident that the Rapanui selected stone from extinct volcanoes at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau to make their statues and topknots. Polynesians and Rapanui tattooed themselves as a way of protecting themselves against exposure to tapu. In fact the Rapanui are some of the most heavily tattooed people in Polynesia. Two tattooing ‘pens’ used to mark women’s bodies in Fiji are shown in this section of the exhibition. This section also sets up an equivalence between tattoos marked on flesh and petroglyphs carved onto the island’s rocks as a means of protecting by creating a decorative wrapping and membrane-like surface that effectively ‘shields’ the person and the island. In their relationship with the island the Rapanui appear to have thought of it and its constituent rocks as a living entity. The exhibition has been enriched by the work of Prof Colin Richards and his colleagues at University College London, Bournemouth University and University of Highlands and Islands.
The concept of the island as a living being may help to explain aspects of the carving of the moai. Rather than extract blocks of rough stone to be worked at the destination the Rapanui carved the statues or moai complete in the quarry. A number of stone adzes or toki can be seen in the corner display unit. The narrow strip or keel of stone joining the statue to the bedrock was then chipped away to release the statue. This is rather like severing the umbilical of a new-born baby. The Rapanui may have thought the rock was literally giving birth to the statue, which was either alive or had the capacity or agency to be alive. Again this chimes with what Rapanui told early researchers when asked how the heavy stone statues were moved. They said that the moai walked to their destinations with the help of a shaman. A large artist’s impression from the National Geographic magazine shows teams of Rapanui ‘walking’ a statue by alternately tugging on ropes.
If any further demonstration of the Rapanui’s skill in working rock with hand-held tools were wanted there is a beautiful stone fish hook complete with part of its trace or line made from vegetable fibres.
The end wall of the gallery is devoted over to sections about the quarries at Rano Raraku and Puna Pau and a model of an ahu or ceremonial platform. The sections are beautifully illustrated by official expedition photographer Adam Stanford’s images of the sites. The Rapanui gathered different stones from all over the island and incorporated them in their ahu. This is hardly surprising given what has been said earlier about the significance of different kinds of rock – the volcanic tuff from Rano Raraku and the the red scoria from Puna Pau to name but two. A later section shows a selection of different stones from Rapa Nui kindly lent by the London Natural History Museum and the Oxford Natural History Museum.
The exhibition sketches the organisation of Rapanui society based on comparisons with other Polynesian islands. Some of the most wonderful exhibits are to be found at this point: a spectacular wooden staff with carved head and bone or coral and obsidian eyes, a pair of wooden dance paddles and wooden figurines.
The final section of the exhibition explores the reasons for the decline of Rapanui culture. It skirts contentious explanations such as the eco-disaster theory. According to this theory the Rapanui chopped down all their trees or introduced deliberately or inadvertently rats which gnawed the seeds of nuts of the palm trees and ate seedlings and thereby prevented the palm forest regenerating. Some researchers have pointed to the large numbers of stone enclosures or manavai on the island as evidence that the Rapanui adapted to their new circumstances. However, if the large numbers of obsidian implements or weapons called mata’a are anything to go by, this later period in the island’s history following contact with Europeans was characterised by increasingly bitter warfare. The statues were toppled and there were fewer and fewer standing each time visits were made to the island. It’s been suggested that this happened at least in part because of lack of maintenance but the fact that statues were toppled and their heads broken off in the process suggests this was done intentionally by other clans on the island. Toppling and destroying a community’s stone statues would rob it of power and authority. Not everyone would agree with this reading, nor the suggestion that the Birdman race, only touched upon here, is a late innovation but then the main focus of this temporary exhibition is ‘monu-mentality’ and incidental topics such as RongoRongo script and the Birdman cult, however fascinating, are only mentioned in passing.
The exhibition opened to the public on Wednesday 1st April and so far the response – at least to judge by comments in the Visitors’ Book – has been very encouraging:-
“Congratulations. Quite an impressive display of our culture for the joy and education of this city.” Mathias Francke DCM Embassy of Chile.
“Amazing exhibition, beautifully laid out and put together. Will be back again” Edwin S.
“Brilliant! We look forward to visiting in June”
“Fantastic loved the layout especially the statues” Tom C.
“Really enjoyed this exhibition. Glad we saw it on a vv cold day outside.” Jan O.
“Glad to see an intelligent reappraisal of the role of the statues within the island’s social community. I look forward to seeing the results of the archaeological fieldwork when they are published.”
“A wonderful exhibition very informative and well-presented. It’s a shame the exhibition wasn’t earlier in the year as it was one of the themes on the GCSE exam paper. Thanks Kate M.”
“Amazing to see the Rapa Nui statues up close. I brought my daughter so she could get some great photos for her A-level photography course… Thank you for allowing to take photos.” (02/04/15)
However, some German visitors complained about the lack of dinosaur keyrings in the Museum shop. Which all goes to show you can’t please all the people all the time…
“I liked it because I had never heard about Easter Island before. It was good to learn about the statues.” Katy aged 9 from Sale
“I went to Easter Island and this was a great little step back in time.” Michael and Helen April ’15
“I never knew they wore hats. How interesting.We really liked the moai statue at the entrance. Also the replicas in the gallery itself.” Aaron and Suzanne
“I thought it was good and I liked the statues.”
“Amazing. I learnt about Tutankhamun but not this. Loved it.”
“It is a fantastic display, very fascinating, my father Tom C. said it was one to come and see. He wasn’t wrong.” Rebecca (7/04/15)
“A most interesting exhibition on the Statues of Easter Island” Alan W. (08/04/15)
“Fascinating exhibits. Very informative member of staff. Learnt something new about the origins of our word taboo as well.”
“Loved seeing the display today. Many thanks”. Marie & Millie from Wakin.
Looking forward to reading and sharing more visitors’ comments as this exhibition progresses. As this last weekend was the Bank Holiday, I asked Dan for a flavour of what visitors were writing in the comments book and he replied: “They’re very positive, people have said great exhibition, very informative, and commented on how good the statues are. One person said it’s “sick” (meaning good, I think!), and one said that Easter Island is where the Easter Bunny lives!”
“I liked the exhibit and I liked the bit with Batman and Thor. I also learnt a lot!” Ruby H. (11/04/15)
“A great exhibition, very informative. Thrilled to bits I can say I have that I have seen an Easter Island statue” J.D. (11/04/15)
“This was thoroughly exciting! I always wanted to know more and see a real Moai. I would love to see this again! Thank you x” (11/04/15)
“After watching Dr Jago Cooper’s excellent program it inspired me to learn more, so lucky then to have this excellent exhibition in Manchester. Thanks.”
“Very detailed. Put together in a fascinating way” (12/04/15)
“I liked the exhibition a lot and I learnt some interesting stuff about Rapa Nui. The moai are really cool.” (12/04/15)
“Thank you for teaching me the proper name of Rapa Nui which I have arrogantly, eurocentrically, known as Easter Island. Beautifully pitched exhibition. Informative and fascinating.” Nicky (14/04/15)
“Amazing exhibition. I love the layout of the exhibition. It really highlighted the pieces and makes the Easter Island history exciting. Thank you for doing this exhibition. I really enjoyed it.” (14/04/15)
“I think that this exhibit is amazing! I am very confused as to how the islanders moved the statues. It is very strange.” By Josh L. (15/04/15)
“An extremely well-crafted exhibition really helps visitors understand and visualise what the statues would be like in situ.” (19/04/15)
“Lovely exhibition, wish it had been bigger. Loved the fabric entrance.” (19/04/15)
“Fascinating Easter Island exhibit” Ross D., Newcastle upon Tyne
“Last week I returned from Chile having spent 9 days exploring Rapa Nui – a unique and utterly amazing experience. I visited Orongo village, from where the moai currently on loan here from the British Museum was taken, and looked at the empty space. The islanders traded it willingly in 1868 and helped it to the Topaze but now it’s time to give it back!” Trevor [N.B. Moai Hava on display at Manchester Museum was taken from Rapa Nui by the HMS Topaze expedition in 1868 but it did not come from Orongo – that statue is Hoa Hakananai’a which is in the British Museum]
“Really nice exhibition. Thank you. I look forward to seeing more in the future. Keep up the good work.” Chile (30/04/15).
“We liked your exhibition. Olina loved the books but was scared by the eyes! And I loved the facts about tattoos.” Melanie and Olina (30/04/15)
‘Fantastic. Could not have been better and so worth the long journey over to get here.’ V.C. and V. Long. (17/06/15)
‘An absolutely fascinating exhibition. Thank you. Very informative and I shall take a much more interested approach to all things relating to Rapa Nui in future.’ (16/07/15)
‘I thought that they were very interesting and it was cool how they slide the statues down to a hole to lift it up. I thought that the entrance behind the curtain is pretty cool. The exhibition was awesome.’
‘Wonderful exhibition of some truly tremendous historical artefacts. Thank you for transporting us to Easter Island. Very well put together and the entrance behind the curtain is great!’
‘A truly inspirational exhibition with plenty of information to grab your interest. Irving was so helpful and he had Chloe aged five-and-a-half wanting more. Thank you all.’ Ben & C from Australia and Maureen from Eccles
‘A very informative exhibition and I have learnt about the people of Easter Island.’ (12/7/15)
‘Very well thought out space and thought-provoking. Clear and accessible information. Thank you!’
‘Very interesting. I learnt a lot more about the history and the statues themselves. Thank you…. Merrifield’
‘It brought the island to life. I had on idea about the volcanoes in each corner or the sheer number of statues. Very respectful exhibition, thanks.’ (13/7/15)
‘We visited Easter Island in Feb this year and read about the stolen moai so had to come and see it here. EASTER ISLAND is fantastic and well worth the journey. Ian W. and Viveien P.’ (17/7/15)
‘That’s cool I really love travel. If I have time I must go to Rapa Nui to have a look! Jacky from HK, traveller.’
‘Very, very interesting! Especially to learn how the clans treated the rock as a living being!’
‘Rapa Nui is Polynesian not Chilean’ – another visitors has annotated the last work with the comment ‘incorrect’
‘Thank you this was an inspiring exhibition’ (19/7/15)
‘Brings back memories from our visit to Easter Island in 2007 Thanks Laura and Stefan’
‘Very interesting exhibition. Liked the artefacts. Never knew about Easter Island until today. Kelly and Arnold’
‘Loved the exhibit. I’m an archaeology student but never really studied Rapa Nui before. This exhibition was informative and well-done. Emily B.’
‘Thank you for a wonderful exhibit – as well as the entire museum. Matilda Dallas, Texas, USA’ (20/7/15)
Moai Hava and entrance to exhibition about Rapa Nui/Easter Island at Manchester Museum.
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.
Statues or moai at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
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).
Map of Rapa Nui or Easter Island showing locations of single and groups of statues
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.
Moai seemingly abandoned in transit. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
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.
Ahu Naua Nau showing moai wearing topknots or pukao. Photo: Adam Stanford (c.) Aerial-Cam Ltd
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.
Inscription on plinth of Moai Hava (photo: Stephen Welsh)
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.
Moai in the Smithsonian (photo: Bryan Sitch)
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.
Comte de la Perouse measuring a moai from Voyage autour du Monde (Copyright: University of Manchester)
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.
Making Monuments exhibition at Manchester Museum. Photo: Joe Gardner.
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.
Admiring the Moai in Making Monuments at Manchester Museum.Photo: Joe Gardner.
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.
Just got back exhausted but exhilarated from a really successful teaching session about Roman inscriptions with a class of children from both Manchester Grammar School and a Blue Coat School studying Latin and/or Classical Civilisation. The session was led by Dr Andrew Fear from University of Manchester Department of Classics. The idea was to engage schoolchildren with Roman material to help them with their studies and to encourage them to maintain an interest in things Classical.
Earlier this afternoon we divided the class into two groups and one half looked at making impressions from Roman inscriptions using the cliche mould or ‘wet squeeze’ method and the other studied some Roman coins that our Numismatist Keith Sugden had got out in advance for them.
sestertius of Trajan (AD 98-117 ) obverse
The cliche mould technique involves placing a sheet of blotting paper over an inscription and using a stiff brush to push the softened paper into the incised surface of the piece of stone. This is a very old way of making accurate copies of Greek, Latin and other inscriptions in the field. The practical aspect of making a cliche mould from an inscription really engaged the students, whereas talking to them about epigraphy would almost certainly have left them cold. Fortunately no damage was done to a Roman inscription because we used a piece of marble with an inscription that is a fake. That wasn’t a problem because the whole point of the exercise was getting the students involved in doing something practical.
It’s all in the brush work
Finished cliche mould of Roman inscription
The other exercise was looking at and understanding Roman coins. We got out a denarius and a sestertius of the emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) and a denarius and a sestertius of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). Armed with a crib sheet from their earlier session with Andy and a magnifying glass and an angle-poise lamp, the students studied each coin, transcribed the inscriptions or legends and translated them. In this way they were able to consolidate what they had learnt earlier about the use of abbreviations such as COS – Consul, or AVG – Augustus, or PP – Pater Patriae for ‘father of his country’. We swapped the coins over half way so they could look at different coins.
Looking at Roman coins
The students picked this up remarkably quickly, further evidence, if any were needed, that there really is nothing like the real thing for inspiring and engaging young (and old) minds. The thought of teaching Classics without supporting objects seems to me to do students an injustice, and, of course, we are well-placed at the Museum in being able to draw upon some amazing collections and provide invaluable hands-on experience. If that doesn’t enhance the learning experience, then nothing will. We hear a great deal about digital interpretation and augmented reality, and new technology certainly has a place but I don’t think anything beats tactile interaction with the real thing. My observations of this afternoon suggest that it was a successful session and that the children enjoyed it and were stimulated by it. It’ll be interesting to see the evaluation sheets from the school.
Of course we have to declare an interest. Fewer and fewer students study this type of material. This is hardly surprising given that it used to be government policy to marginalise Classics. Charles Clarke, back in 2003, said he was little concerned were the study of classics ‘to go the way of all flesh’. The number of pupils taking Latin GCSE in the state sector plummeted from about 8500 in 1988 to less than 3500 in 2004. Yet the benefits of teaching Classics have long been known. An Indianapolis survey on the effects of teaching Latin to 6th grade children (1973) showed that after 5 months of Latin, the children had advanced 7 months in maths, 8 months in word knowledge, 9 months in problem solving, one year in reading, AND 13 months in language.
denarius of Hadrian (AD 117-138)
The session was supported by the University’s Widening Participation Department. Thanks to to Cat Lumb, Andy Fear and Irit Narkiss for organising and running the session.
Thanks to the kindness of Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Outreach here at Manchester Museum, I can show an image of the recent session about the First World War with the Youth Board and creative consultants. Whilst the Museum does not collect social history, some objects in the collection were acquired during the First World War. I got out some objects donated by Francis Buckley (1881-1949) when he was serving in northern France during the First World War. The circumstances were rather unusual. 2nd Lieutenant Buckley was charged with preparing a line of trenches known as the Red Line at the village of Coigneux in 1918. This was in response to a German offensive. Buckley was there from April until the middle of August and had plenty of time to inspect the upcast soil from the excavations to create the trenches. Reginald A.Smith of the British Museum had asked Buckley to look at disturbed ground in case archaeological material was revealed.
Red Line Trenches Coigneux
The drawings above show Francis Buckley’s painstaking care in recording the stratigraphy of the trenches which had yielded flint implements of Mousterian or Neanderthal date, so going back potentially going back several hundred thousand years. The Neanderthal stone tools were found along the tops of the parapets. Buckley knew that the material on top of the parapet was likely to be from the soil from the very bottom of the trenches when they were deepened because of the German threat. Buckley noted ruefully that had it been possible to excavate the parapets he would have found more implements. ‘But for military reasons this was quite out of the question’ he wrote in his article about the Coigneux discoveries published in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia (1920-1), pp.1-9.
Francis Buckley was clearly someone to have around in an emergency and he was mentioned in dispatches (‘His Majesty’s high appreciation of the services rendered’) on 9th April 1917. Even so you wonder what Lieutenant Buckley’s commanding officer made of the close observation of the trenches for archaeological material…
This kind of behaviour is not unusual in warfare and quite coincidentally I came across the image below earlier this week in one of our archive boxes. It shows a rather charming little painting of a pot decorated with a white wavy line on its shoulder. Two views are shown. It’s only when you read the pencil inscription underneath that you realise what this represents. ‘Found whilst deepening a well in Gallipoli – about 3 feet of mud on top of it. The well contained water and was near Cape Hellas about 2 miles from Knithia (?)’. Someone has added in ink ‘Said at S.Kensington to be modern Turkish, possibly 200 years old’. In other words this pot was found during the unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign in which so many soldiers were killed or wounded, and yet someone still took the trouble to make a record of a pot they had found. There is no name attached to the painting but one likely candidate is Lieutenant Thomas Eric Peet B.A, of the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, Army Service Corps who worked in the Egyptology Department of Manchester Museum. In 1917 Thomas Peet commanded an Army unit dedicated to excavating and preserving antiquities discovered on the classically rich battlefields of the Salonica Front. Perhaps his promotion was the result of the beautiful records he had made of chance discoveries like the Turkish pot.
Turkish pot from Gallipoli
When I was talking to the Youth Board I said that soldiers weren’t fighting all of the time and often found time to practice some of the skills they had developed in civilian life. Perhaps the detailed recording of flints from the trenches at Coigneux or of a Turkish pot Gallipoli are evidence of soldiers finding ways to express their humanity in an inhumane situation.
Afterwards I showed the Youth Board some Roman material to explore how soldiers 2000 years ago introduced new styles of jewellery and pottery into Britain that the native British would not have been familiar with. New introductions such Continental brooches and mortaria or mixing bowls were adopted by the soldiers’ families and by civilians, making the soldiers important agents of Romanisation in newly-conquered provinces. Roman soldiers as advocates of Mediterranean culinary expertise in their spare time is a far cry from recording archaeology disturbed by the trenches or the fighting at Gallipoli. It seemed somehow glib in comparison.
Thanks to Andrea Winn and Michael Whitworth for information and images used in this blog.
International Curators visit to Clifford’s Tower in York, 6th September 2014
It’s that time of year when Manchester Museum hosts visits from Curators participating in the British Museum’s International Curators Training Programme. In previous years I have co-ordinated the curators’ stay in Manchester but this year I handed over to colleagues Campbell Price and Stephen Welsh to take the lead. My contribution was to take the international curators to York for the day. York is a premier destination for anyone interested in history and archaeology and must have more archaeological attractions per square mile than anywhere else in the UK. An opportunity to see Roman and Medieval museum collections and still standing architecture is not to be passed up easily.
Christine and I met the curators at York Railway Station just after 10am and we walked over to Lendel Bridge where we had a coffee. The international curators are from India, Pakistan and Armenia. Just over the road is the Yorkshire Museum. We spent a very interesting hour in the museum looking at the Roman and Medieval displays. The staff there were very helpful and one of the Visitor Assistants in the extinction gallery gave us a lot of information about the Great Auk and its egg. I loved the simple but effective display of a Thylacine skull behind a transparency mounted on the inside of the glass of the display case showing the animal when it was alive. A similar interest in facial reconstruction was evident in the archaeology galleries although for some reason only photographs of the faces of York people from various times in history were on show. And the facial reconstruction of Richard III had moved on since my last visit. A portrait of Richard III was recently selected for the British Museum’s Teaching History with 100 Objects initiative. We had an interesting discussion about revenue generation whilst we were in the galleries and noted the somewhat exploitative placing of a dispenser for fossil shark’s teeth in the fossisl gallery to tap the children’s pocket money.
Fossil teeth dispenser at the entrance to the fossil gallery.
Wasn’t this like placing a display of sweets next to the tills in a supermarket?
We called in briefly at York Minster but the entrance fee was rather prohibitive for the amount of time we had to spend and we moved on quite quickly for a photo call with the statue of Constantine the Great outside. We had lunch in a small cafe on Goodramgate nearby.
Photo opportunity with Constantine the Great outside York Minster
After lunch we made our way via the Shambles to the Yorvik Centre. It is always a great treat to sit in one of the cars and travel through the recreation of life in Viking York. I somehow think the animatronics distracts from the serious work of historical and archaeological reconstruction, making it seem more like a tacky Santa’s Grotto. the displays don’t take themselves too seriously and there was much hilarity as we passed the Viking man sitting on the toilet complete with sound effects and smells!
Clifford’s Tower is just a short walk away and although the staff weren’t able to offer us any discount (the Yorkshire Museum generously waived the entrance fee altogether) the 360 degree views of York from the top of the rampart more than made up for the dent it made in our purses. Again commercialism was on display with plastic knight’s swords and shields on display in the shop inside the tower. Somehow it seemed incongruous in the historic Medieval setting. I tried to explain that in this age of austerity with a reduction in that grants that English Heritage receives from government there is more emphasis on income generation, but the International Curators felt it detracted from the architecture and historical surroundings. It was nearly 4pm and we left our international curator guests to explore the centre of York for an hour or two themselves before they caught the train up to Newcastle, where they were staying overnight en route to Edinburgh. And a good time was had by all.
Kiera holds the fort at the recent Big Saturday at Manchester Museum
The subject of last Saturday’s Big Saturday was travel, and with Kiera from the British Museum, who is with us on a placement at the moment, I showed some objects from Easter Island to the public. It was particularly appropriate to show material from Easter Island or Rapa Nui which must be the most isolated place on earth as part of the travel Big Saturday. As a useful map in John Flenley and Paul Bahn’s book The Enigmas of Easter Island Island on the Edge (Oxford University Press, 2002) shows, it is almost 3,600 km from the coast of Chile on the South American mainland and 2,092 km from Pitcairn, the nearest ‘neighbouring’ island: imagine popping round to the neighbours to borrow a cup of sugar! One of the Collections Team curatorial assistants went out to Easter Island as part of her holiday and kindly sent me some copies of photographs she took. Kate told me it took just over 5 hrs to get from Chile to Easter Island by plane. The unique, monumental stone statues or moai from the island are the subject of an exciting new temporary exhibition called Making Monuments on Rapa Nui; the Stone Statues of Easter Island which opens on April 2nd 2015 and runs until 6th September 2015.
Easter Island postcards (courtesy of Kate Sherburn)
Up to their necks in it: Easter Island statues (courtesy of Kate Sherburn)
Many of the visitors to the Big Saturday whom we talked to were familiar with the statues and they were thrilled to see some objects from Easter Island from the Museum’s Living Cultures collection. These were kindly made available by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures. There are four obsidian mata’a or spearheads from the Charles Heape collection. Charles Heape (1848-1926) was a businessman by background but because of his interests he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Anthropological Institute. He collected implements and weapons and in May 1923 he donated his collection – said to be the most complete of its kind in existence – to Manchester Museum. It was said to be of supreme value not only to the University but to Ethnology students throughout the world. He collaborated with James Edge Partington, who had collected in the Pacific, to publish An Ethnographical Album of the Pacific Islands. Given their respective collecting interests and backgrounds it is hardly surprising that some Easter Island material came to Manchester Museum.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island (accession number 2425)
The mata’a look like very large barbed and tanged arrowheads (see image above). However, they are so big they cannot have been used as arrowheads or projectiles. They are much more likely to have been mounted as spearheads by means of the stem or tang. I initially thought the tips of these implements had been damaged and that was why they didn’t come to a point. It looks as though there is a great deal of variability in the shapes of the mata’a. Many writers have quoted George Forster who accompanied Captain Cook on his visit to Easter Island in 1774: ‘some…had lances or spears made of thin ill-shaped sticks and pointed with a sharp triangular piece of black glassy lava’. To some, the historical context for these weapons is the period of internecine warfare that followed the destruction of the island’s palm forest and ever-increasing competition between the different clans on the island for food and other resources. To others the collapse of traditional Easter Island or Rapa Nui culture did not come because of whole-scale degradation of the environment by chopping down the trees (what Jared Diamond refers to as ‘ecocide’) but because of the effects of contact with Europeans in the 18th century.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island
Some archaeologists, however, have questioned whether the mata’a are indeed weapons. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in The Statues that Walked Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (Free Press, 2011) questioned the evidence for a descent into violence and wrote that only a small proportion of prehistoric human skeletal remains from the island show evidence of trauma. Of the mata’a they write:
Obsidian mata’a from Easer Island
‘On Rapa Nui, it is often assumed that obsidian tools known as mata’a are evidence of lethal weapons. These are roughly triangular implements that have a stem chipped on one end for hafting to some kind of shaft. How lethal mata’a would have been, however, is open to debate. While the edges are sharp, their shape is not appropriate for piercing, and we should be cautious before concluding that they were used in warfare…they would have been remarkably poor tools for stabbing.’ They cite studies of microwear on the edges of the mata’a arguing they were used for the cutting and scraping of fibrous plant materials and quote an observation made by Cornelis Bouman, captain of one of the Dutch ships with Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, to the effect that the islanders cut ‘bananas with a sharp black stone’.
Obsidian mata’a from Easter Island
In their rebuttal of Hunt and Lipo’s assertion that the mata’a were agricultural implements Flenley, Butler and Bahn wrote that the obsidian objects were unlikely just to be tools because of their intricate hafting. They write that insufficient work has been done on micro-wear analysis and they ask why the mata’a turn up suddenly and in large numbers (sometimes in hoards) and quite late in the history of the occupation of the island. Although one skull had been pierced through by a single thrust of a spear, the relative paucity of evidence for injuries on human skeletons could be explained by the fact that fatal wounds inflicted on soft tissues would simply not survive archaeologically. The wounds mentioned in the Spanish accounts of the visit to Easter Island in 1770 are also relevant: ‘…in some we observed sundry wounds on the body, which we thought to have been inflicted by cutting instruments of iron or steel, we found that they proceeded from stones… and as most of these are sharp edged they produce the injury referred to’. This blog paragraph briefly summarises one of the sections in Flenley, Butler and Bahn’s ‘Respect versus contempt for evidence: Reply to Hunt and Lipo’ in Rapa Nui Journal (vol.21(2) October 2007, pp.98-104. Lethal weapon or banana chopper, it is up to you gentle readers…
Since writing this a few days ago I have read Grant McAll’s ‘European Impact on Easter Island: Response Recruitment and the Polynesian Experience in Peru’ in Journal of Pacific History 11.2 (1976), 90-105. In this article there is an account of the pursuit of a Peruvian slaver by an islander called Tori. Years later the Peruvian returned to Easter Island and offered gifts to his pursuer who had shouted to him to stand and fight. In the account it states ‘Tori could easily have thrown his mataa (spear) and have killed that young man, but he did not want to throw at the young man’s back.’ And Tori himself makes the following explanation: “I could easily have thrown my mataa at your back and have killed you but I didn’t want to’ and an intermediary repeats “He didin’t want to cut you with his mataa from behind. You would now be dead with his mataa. He didn’t wish to cut you from behind.”
In addition to the mata’a Kiera and I also showed a wooden figurine but as it is not clear whether or not this was made for the tourist market I do not discuss it here. We also showed some archive photographs of a journey in the Pacific undertaken by members of the Hudson family during the 1930s, of which this is one taken during their time on Easter Island:-
Photograph from a 1930s visit to Easter Island (Manchester Museum)
I understand that visitors especially enjoyed seeing the ‘unusual objects from many years ago’ and were impressed by the ‘amount of activities on offer today’, to which the Easter Island table made its contribution. My thanks to Kiera for manning the fort whilst I went to see a Roman one at Castleshaw and to Vicki for planning and organising such a wonderful day.
This must be the only job in the world where you could attend a Druid ceremony at dawn to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the discovery of a bog body, show the public objects from Easter Island in the morning, and visit the excavation of a Roman fort in the afternoon…
Things seem to have been going slightly mad since we wrote a short piece about our re-examination of Worsley Man in the Unilife magazine of the University of Manchester last year.
The head is being studied by a team of specialists ftom the Universities of Nottingham Trent and Manchester. With the help of Prof Judith Adams of the Manchester Hospitals we were able to scan Worsley Man, the human head that was found in a peat moss in 1958. A picture of this scan appeared in the UniLife magazine and has generated considerable interest.
All of sudden the media took notice and within a short period of time we were taking calls from the Manchester Evening News and BBC North West. I did a short filmed interview with BBC NorthWest that was released last week and there was an article in the Manchester Evening News last Thursday.
Yesterday I received an enquiry from the Discovery Channel and colleagues in marketing told me the story had been picked up by a Polish newspaper.
It’s amazing how much interest can be generated by just a short piece in the university magazine. Of course bringing together the victim of a violent murder, modern technology and forensic science is bound to generate enormous public interest as Lindow Man and episodes of CSI have shown.
The announcement recently of the future issue of a new pound coin because so many of the existing £1 coins in circulation are forgeries reminded me that the ancient Romans had a similar problem. A significant proportion of the silver denarii were silver plated forgeries. The Romans tried to make it harder to forge the denarius by making it with v-shaped cut-outs on the edge of the flan. This was supposed to make it harder to copy as a forgery but in fact within a relatively short space of time the forgers were copying the serratus. It makes you wonder whether the new £1 coin will be any more successful.
Roman Republican serratus showing Juno Sospita
The obverse of the serratus shows the head of Juno Sospita wearing a goat’s skin and on the reverse Juno standing in her biga or chariot, with a serpent beneath the horses. The writing says L.PROCILI.F. The Procili family originated in Lanuvium which is where the cult of Juno Sospita was popular. She was supposed to have a protective role in time of war.
Juno Sospita in her biga or cart
Roman coin striking
I am grateful to Keith Sugden for kindly getting the serratus coin out of the Numismatics collection for me to photograph and share with blog readers.