Investigating Monumentality in Melanesia

“During the months of May and June, Dr Stuart Bedford began preliminary fieldwork relating to his new ARC funded project Investigating monumentality in Melanesia: the archaeology of ritual architecture on the islands of Malakula, Vanuatu. Prior to the fieldwork archival research was undertaken at a number of institutions in an attempt to establish an ethnographic baseline for the islands of Malakula. Returning this information to communities has attracted huge attention, particularly unpublished photographs taken in the 1880s.

Lamap_stone_structure[Photo: Lamap stone structure.]

Initial fieldwork focused in the Port Sandwich-Lamap area of south Malakula, where the early historic records, from James Cook right through to the early colonial period, provide a rich source of information relating to settlement patterns, population figures and a whole series of named villages long since abandoned. Massive depopulation following European settlement in the area has left much of the landscape apparently deserted, but local knowledge of the entire region, including all stone architectural features remains strong, although often contested.

Two teams were set up so that both survey and excavation could be carried out at the same time. These were led by Dr Bedford, Dr Frederique Valentin (CNRS, Paris), Marcelin Abong (Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre *VKS+), Richard Shing and Brigitte Laboukly (both VKS). Excavation was concentrated at the site of the 1886 French military post and later commercial operations, while survey was focused on the terrain that surrounds the extensive harbour.

The_store[Photo: ‘The Store’, 1899]

Some 70 stone architectural features were recorded. An 1899 photograph found in the archives of the National Museum of New Zealand provided an intriguing clue to early commercial activities in the region. Cross referencing this photograph with other archival sources we have been able to establish that this photograph was almost certainly taken on the 2nd of August 1899 during the visit of the tourist ship the S.S. Waikare and its 180 passengers. While no oral traditions relating to the large store remain, archaeological excavation soon revealed its foundations and extent. Tantalising artefactual remains related to the French military occupation were also recovered…”

[extract from Archaeology and Natural History Newsletter No.4(2), August 2013]

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