The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World

Since my last post,* I was able to take my wife on a trip that we have both desired to make for most of our lives: a trek to Easter Island. As I have just completed teaching a brief series of classes on the subject for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi (more affectionately: OLLI), I’ll offer a few summary posts here.

Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.

Rano Raraku
A couple of the famous heads at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo ©Daniel C Browning Jr)

There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .

Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1

While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).

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Elevations and major physical features of Easter Island, with inset showing isolated location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.

Poike from SE coast
The SE coast of Easter Island with Poike in the distance (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).

About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3

The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4

But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.

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A bad thing happened . . . typical fallen moai at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Continue to Part 2: Click Here!

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*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
3Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 91.
4See, for example, Sebastian Englert, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Scribners, 1970), 30-31.

Pic of the Day 2017-12-10 (and 2015-07-11): “Lord Help”

Ruins of the ancient city of Knidos (also Cnidus) lie at the end of a long peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea from SW Turkey. In antiquity one came there mostly by sea, as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 27:7) while a prisoner en route to Rome.

Cnidus-Knidos: Apollo and Round Temple
Knidos: View west over the Apollo and Round Temple terraces (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Exploring the site on a very hot July day in 2015, I literally stumbled across an inscribed marble block that caught my eye. The words ΚΥΡΙΕ ΒΟΗΘΕΙ (“Lord Help”) framed by crosses appear above the central feature: a carved labyrinth about 21 cm across. A larger cross just right of the labyrinth with an alpha and omega beneath its arms makes it clear this was an early Christian inscription. Other decorations include two palm trees and a bush(?) as well as a grapevine emerging from some kind of vessel.1

Cnidus-Knidos
The Knidos Labyrinth (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Labyrinths have a long history of religious application, including Christian use.2 The Knidos Labyrinth is certainly one of the earliest known Christian examples. My image is not the greatest Pic of the Day example—it is hard to make out details and it is marred by two large drops of sweat I got on the stone before realizing I needed to photograph it. Nevertheless, I was inspired to post this because earlier tonight University Baptist Church (Hattiesburg, MS) announced the completion of a new Labyrinth at its monthly Celtic Worship Service. It is outside and integrated into the architecture and landscape of the campus. Again, not great pics, but the best I could do on the fly with low-light and my cellphone:

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The new labyrinth at UBC, Hattiesburg.
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The new labyrinth at UBC, Hattiesburg.

The Labyrinth and Celtic Worship service are perhaps a bit odd-sounding to most evangelical protestant Christians (including this one at first). Rather than attempt some full explanation in this short blog, I will merely note that both focus on prayerful contemplation, and this is a good thing in these raucous and distracted times. Beyond that, you might check the Celtic Worship link and give the Labyrinth a go. It is always open and much easier to visit than the Knidos Labyrinth.3

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The author excitedly showing his discovery to his colleague (photo by David C Maltsberger, used with permission).

Final words: the inscription on the Knidos Labyrinth first struck me a prayer for those lost in a maze (literally or figuratively). But a labyrinth of this type has only one winding path and no dead ends. One cannot get hopelessly lost on the path, but might tire of the changes in direction and despair of reaching the goal. Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of the inscribed words as the best general appeal for the twisting path and blind turns of life: “Lord Help.”

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Footnotes

1 Staffan Lundén, “A New Labyrinth at Knidos,” Caerdroia 33 (2003): 6-12.

2 For a nice overview of labyrinths and their recent revival, see The Labyrinth Society’s webpage.

3 Nevertheless, the Knidos Labyrinth has inspired several full-size versions; see Erwin Reißmann, “The Knidos Labyrinth,” BLOGMYMAZE LabyrinthBlog, December 17, 2008.

 

Pic of the Day 2017-10-08 (belated)

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia in the pre-sunset (6:03 pm) light (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

One of the most glorious things to do in Istanbul is take in the sunset and twilight light on Hagia Sophia. The proper vantage point is between the venerable church (then Mosque, then museum) and the nearly equally famous (but not nearly as impressive or historic) Blue Mosque, from which nice views of the latter can also be had. Patience rewards one with a transition of stunning views—and you can grab a durum döner to go at the adjacent Dervish Cafe and enjoy it with the changing light.

Hagia Sophia in the twilight
Hagia Sophia in the twilight, about 45 minutes later (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Pic of the Day 2017-10-06: Interfaith Interaction in Ancient Rough Cilicia?

This Pic of the Day post is 5 days delayed, but it is serendipitously appropriate in light of a fine talk I heard tonight at University Baptist Church on Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue as a “pillar” of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi—delivered by a former student and now CBF of MS Coordinator, Dr Jason Coker.

Of interest in current research by myself and David Maltsberger is Çatıören, yet another (of many) ancient ruins partly concealed by the jagged rocks and accursed (I have certainly cursed them) scrub oaks of aptly-named Rough Cilicia. The main attraction for us is a building that apparently served as a synagogue, owing to the Jewish menorah symbol carved on the lintel of the entrance door.

Çatıören: synagogue
Ancient synagogue at Çatıören; identified as such by the Menorah carved into the doorway lintel (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).
Çatıören: synagogue
Lintel with carved menorah over doorway of Çatıören synagogue (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The date of the synagogue is debatable. The building’s walls are of a Hellenistic style of masonry, but it is likely that its final use coincides with that of a nearby church and therefore probably 5th-6th centuries AD. The juxtaposition is all the more interesting when an equidistant pagan temple to Hermes is considered.

Hermes Temple
Temple of Hermes in 2016, taken from the tower above the Jewish synagogue at Çatıören (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The Hermes Temple has symbols representing the caduceus of Hermes in relief prominently carved above the main doorway. Crosses, naturally, are found on the Christian basilica. Cilicia is known to have remained a mix of paganism and Christianity (and Judaism) several centuries into the Christian Era. The religious structures at Çatıören highlight this cosmopolitan situation.

Çatıören, viewed from the South
Çatıören, viewed from the South, with locations of the Temple of Hermes, Jewish synagogue, and Christian church indicated (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The carved symbols on those structures no doubt represent group identification in a period of pluralism; and perhaps even an attitude of exclusivism or tribalism, such as we see too often in today’s world. But it is also possible that they represent identification in a period of dialogue and mutual peace. Returning to tonight’s church discussion: Jason made the cogent observation that ecumenism and interfaith dialogue carry a certain risk—and that dialogue, understanding, and acceptance of others should not imply or include a loss of conviction in one’s own beliefs. There is no way to know for certain, but I would like to think that the residents of Cilicia in late antiquity carried on in such a manner. I found evidence of this ten minutes after leaving Çatıören in the necropolis (cemetery) of Korykos (modern Kizkalesi). There, sarcophagi (big stone coffins) with Jewish menorahs, pagan symbols, and Christian crosses lie next to each other with no hint of animosity—only symbolic proclamations of the faith under which they lived and died.

Korykos: Necropolis 3
A Jewish sarcophagus (with menorah on the “horn” of the lid) lies adjacent to a Christian one (cross on the side) in the Korykos Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Pic of the Day 2017-10-04: An ancient garden statue center

Yesemek
A Sphnix statue in basalt at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

Yesemek is a rather unusual archaeological site in Turkey, 6 km from Syria. The “ruins” are really a workshop for production of standard Hittite (and Neo-Hittite) monumental statuary used to decorate palaces and public buildings.

Yesemek
Basalt carvings at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

The basic forms were created here and then transported and perhaps detailed at the cities where they were installed. Hundreds of standardized forms still stand on the hillside, like the concrete statue places found outside of cities all over the world today.

Mountain gods
Mountain gods with moon discs; basalt statuary at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

 

Lion or bear-man
A lion-man (or is it a bear-man?) relief at Yesemek (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr).

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Shaken, and also Stirred

Shaken, and also Stirred: Recollections of the Mexico City Earthquake (of 1985)

Exactly 32 years ago (according to the Gregorian Calendar convention as I write this) I was preparing to fly into Mexico City after the major earthquake there (19 September 1985). Like most Americans, I was horrified by the destruction and dismayed by the suffering displayed on our television screens in the aftermath of the 8.1 magnitude temblor. But what could I do? At the time, I was a PhD student and of limited resources. My friend Brad Gray, a fellow student who had grown up as a missionary kid in Mexico City, suddenly asked me if I would like to go down and help with disaster relief. His father was then Partnership Missions director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). Brad, an excellent organizer with local knowledge and fluent Spanish, would be on the ground helping direct the effort by an organization within the BGCT called “Texas Baptist Men.” When I protested that I didn’t speak Spanish and had no real connection with the group or special skill, he replied, “we’ll find you a job; come on!” So, I agreed to what would be a life-changing experience.

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A destroyed building with rescue workers on top in the aftermath of the 19 September 1985 Mexico City earthquake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Mexico earthquake this week—on the very day of the 32-year anniversary of the 1985 event—has triggered memories of the earlier event. I hope, dear reader, you will indulge my reminiscences in this post.

I was not a “first responder” (I use quotes because that term was not used then), nor was I to be involved in the dramatic work of searching for survivors or victims. The Texas Baptist Men had developed a disaster relief team and equipment, including a fully self-sustained kitchen built into an 18-wheeler setup that was ready to go and provide thousands of meals a day. Similar rigs prepared and operated by the Baptist Men organizations in several other states were going down as well. This was a mission to provide food for displaced survivors, coordinating the effort through the Baptist Convention of Mexico.

The several mobile kitchen rigs arrived and set up in various high-need locations around Mexico City. The Texas unit was established in a soccer field in the barrio called Tepito, a place known then (and still, apparently) for being somewhat lawless. It was a poor neighborhood in which the quake destroyed a great many old buildings, displacing a large percentage of the residents.

Texas Baptist Men's Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio
Texas Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio, late Sept-early Oct, 1985; note the ham radio antenna, the only means of communication. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

With all the states’ Baptist Men Disaster Relief units set up in similar locations, but widely dispersed, the main problem would be logistics. By this time, a few days after the earthquake, international aid had flowed into the city in the form of basic food supplies, but it and other staples were in government warehouses. The Mexican government (primarily the Social Protective Services) authorized distribution of supplies to the kitchen units, but they would have to be picked up from the warehouses. A 1.5-ton box-van brought by the Texas Baptist Men was suitable for the job, but no one in their crew was confident about driving it into parts unknown with little information, no real directions, damaged infrastructure, and no communications. Just then, a 28-year-old PhD student with an underdeveloped sense of caution arrived with no other assigned job.

The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit.
The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Brad gave me keys to the box-van and the task of fetching basic food stuffs from far-flung warehouses and delivering the same to four mobile kitchens buried in the chaos of a wreaked major city. With a few pesos I obtained a couple of city maps—there were no GPS helps in those days and no cell phones. Communications between the kitchen units and the hotel base were not a problem, as virtually all of the involved laymen were ham radio operators and each kitchen unit had its own radio setup. This did not help me, however, while on the road. My lack of Spanish was also still a concern, but within hours Brad got a fellow missionary kid down from Texas to be a translator.

The Chevy box-van
The Chevy box-van used to transfer supplies from government warehouses to various state Baptist Men’s mobile kitchen disaster relief units in Mexico City, following the 19 Sept 1985 earthquake; with pilot/navigator AncientDan, and translator Greg. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The aid team was billeted in a local hotel that had survived relatively unscathed. They even had a functioning kitchen and produced a huge pot of huevos rancheros every morning. They were fantastic and still today I think of them most days as I make my own version. The daily routine after breakfast was to get my assignment, consisting of what supplies to get at which government warehouse, and to which kitchen units to deliver them. Another assignment was often waiting when I made delivery.

Driving through the city I was struck with the odd juxtaposition of devastation and normal life. Parts of the city were demolished and other parts were visibly unaffected. Tent cities of displaced persons could be seen with businessmen in suits walking by on the way to their offices. Life goes on; normally for some, and profoundly differently for others.

Makeshift shelters
Makeshift shelters in a public space along a major artery in central Mexico City after the 1985 quake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The warehouses were all over the place and I would navigate there using my trusty maps (I still have them). In most cases, I was obliged to go to a government office for approval from some bureaucrat, where I was invariably told, “you may get the [so-and-so] in [so-many] hours.” Awkward sitting around in a stark office with no activity followed—which I finally concluded must have been an encouragement to offer some incentive for quicker service. Not having any significant cash with which to provide such incentive, I learned it was best to say (through my translator and new friend Greg), “we’ll be back then.” Not wanting to waste gas, we might jump on the subway and grab some food or explore. In one case, I determined there was an archaeological site of interest nearby, so I managed a quick visit (possibly soon the subject of a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” post).

The delivery truck and food line
Residents of Tepito, lined up for meals, next to “my” delivery box-van, at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The delay in signing approval forms was decidedly not to arrange labor to help load. It was usually just the guy with the key, Greg, and me who would stack the supplies in the box-van. We loaded thousands of pounds of sacked corn and rice (I don’t remember beans) and the like. The most memorable loads were weiners and chickens. They came from meat-processing plants. For the weiners, we drove into a “refrigerated” building (it was merely not too hot) and past hundreds of hog carcasses hanging on hooks (a macabre sight stuck in my head to this day) to a room-sized locker. It was filled with linked weiners—all unboxed. We simply coiled them on the metal floor of the van.

One morning I was instructed to pick up 1,000 pounds of chicken from a certain warehouse.  After the usual formalities, we arrived at a locker similar to the weiner room. I was naïvely expecting packaged cut-up pieces like breasts and thighs. When the door was opened, thousands of plucked chickens tumbled out and onto the floor. Slightly troubled, we casually tossed them individually into the back of the van in a great pile. I vividly remember making the delivery (to the Louisiana Baptist Men site?) because when we opened the back of the truck, the local ladies that were recruited to cook began yelling excitedly, “Pollo! Pollo! Pollo!” and joyously hauled them off to the giant pots. What I had subconsciously rejected for my own consumption was a major blessing to those in need.

Driving in power-deprived Mexico City was a trip (in the 70s sense of that term). I learned that even functional traffic lights were routinely ignored and that fortune (as well as actual movement) favors the bold. Also, the larger and more beat-up vehicle had the right-of-way in this system, so the old Chevy box-van was a winner! The only things that didn’t yield to me were garbage trucks, dump trucks, and city busses. Getting to the kitchen sites was a bit of a challenge. Roads were closed, choked with piles of debris, or incredibly narrow in the barrios where the rigs were positioned. In one case, access was only through an alley that was a half a centimeter too narrow. Both ends of the rear step/bumper scraped with a horrible din on the stone curbing for several hundred feet, to the alarm of the neighborhood adults and great amusement of their kids. Veterans of my Study Travel and Excavation Program adventures may correctly conclude that Mexico City in 1985 profoundly shaped my driving tendencies.

The Results
The Results: thousands residents of Tepito get a meal at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Without resorting to clichés, I find it difficult to verbalize exactly how this experience was “life-changing,” as I noted in the first paragraph. I credit it with giving me confidence in strange and foreign situations, and in finding my place of service to others—which often seems to be in the weird peripheral or transitional areas. But the impact of my experience was not so much about me as about the chance to observe and process.

My observations and some random thoughts (in no particular order):

  • I find it difficult to take pictures of people under duress (thus there are no dramatic pics here).
  • Life goes on. I did take a picture of a man in a business suit walking to his office past a destroyed building and across the street from a tent encampment [unfortunately, I didn’t load that picture to post from my current whereabouts]. It was a striking (to me) juxtaposition.
  • Life can be crappy in its continuation. You and I (and all people) must decide if we will try to make it less crappy for those we can help.
  • I am not convinced that a selfless desire to help others is completely inherent. I rather think we must be shaken by events and be stirred to to the point of that decision.
  • True Religion is helping those that do not have the means to help themselves, and true mission activity is found in genuinely providing aid rather than mere words (I strongly recommend reading James 2).
  • It is better to build bridges than walls.

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A Serendipitous Adventure: The Belevi Tumlus

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 2.

While scanning for high ground from which to get a better overview pic of the Belevi Monument, my adventure companions and I noticed something odd about the adjacent hilltop. It had a very uniform dome-like summit, as would be expected for a man-made tumulus . . . but tumuli generally are built up on flat ground rather than on top of a natural hill. Yet, it seemed that a ring wall surrounded the uniform summit . . . or was that a natural rock outcropping? Zooming in with photographic technology made it obvious: we had to climb the hill, heat and limited time notwithstanding.

Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument
Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument

For background, if you haven’t read it already, see “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time,” for which this post is the promised rejoinder.

Adventure!  

A quick review of resources indicated just enough water for the anticipated rigor of the climb and to avoid a time-killing return to the vehicle. Up we went.

Sure enough, a wall surrounded the summit; so well-built that we wondered if it could be modern. But clambering up the last steep bit to the base, we could see that it was ancient and of elegant quality. Climbing over the wall would be difficult and of uncertain gain at that point (on the E side), so we split up and walked around the circuit.

Stacey at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus
Stacey Figueiredo at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Tumuli are built so as to obscure the entrance for tombs contained therein, so we were not hopeful. But Shane, who went clockwise, found a tunnel opening on the south, enclosed and originally concealed by the circuit wall but now accessible.

Finding an entrance was very exciting but unexpected. As the Belevi Monument did not require underground exploration equipment, we were without proper lights and, in my case, a good camera for unlit tight spaces. Still, the tunnel beckoned and in we went.

Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage
Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The tunnel was constructed, apparently, by cutting down from above and then lining the passage thus made with masonry and roofing it over with large cut slabs before debris was piled and rounded above. This nearly straight and level passage led for about 20 yards (18.3 m) to an anteroom space and two successive burial chambers—the second at approximately the center of the tumulus. Unfortunately, the sides and roof of the tunnel were coated in a greasy black soot, which evidently came from a burned tire. What moron would lug a tire up this hill and then torch it in the tunnel? This can only be explained by Rule One.

Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, blackened by the tire fire residue, we arrived at the burial chambers. The first is approximately square with fine stone walls featuring “crown molding” along the tops. The roof is formed by four large blocks laid across the corners as though a second tier of wall masonry was rotated 45 degrees. The effect is somewhat like the recessed ceilings popular in recent American home construction. While it is very interesting in appearance (and hard to photograph) its structural function relieves pressure on the thus-reduced roof space.

An Engineering Digression:

A problem in tumuli, pyramids, cairns, and other big piles over chambers is the resulting pressure on the roof slabs of the latter. The same problem occurs for any spanned space with significant structural loads. The arch is the most common way of dealing with this from the Roman period on.

Another technique is found in the innermost burial chamber of the Belevi Tumulus, which is smaller and more rectangular. It has a “corbelled arch” roof, in which each successive course of masonry is slightly inset to the center. In this inner chamber, a hole in the roof gave access to a relieving chamber above. From it a small tunnel led to another relieving chamber over the outer burial chamber. Relieving chambers are another way of “relieving” roof pressure, as they are slightly smaller and help transfer to the load to the walls rather than the roof of the chamber below. The most famous relieving chambers are those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Such chambers are usually not visible and provide potential hiding places for treasure. It is likely that the holes giving access to the relieving chambers at Belevi were created by treasure hunters, whether ancient or modern.

Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Access to the relieving chambers through the hole in the center of the inner chamber roof was a challenge—imagine the scene in Moana, where she escapes the cave through such a hole! For us it was only possible by boosting, using each others’ shoulders as a ladder, and wriggling through the tight hole (I split open an elbow and resolved to lose some girth). Given the coating of black tire tar, we did not emerge as deftly or cleanly as Moana. Getting back down was a tad more exciting still. In case anyone wonders, there was no physical treasure, but the exploration itself was a priceless enriching Adventure.1

Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Belevi Tumulus (38.0142° N, 27.4675° E)

True enrichment only comes with learning, so it was incumbent upon the Adventurers to research the site. As it happens, the tumulus was known already in the 19th century and sporadically investigated by Austrian and German archaeologists between 1933 and 1971.2 The date of the tumulus remains uncertain, but the early Hellenistic period seems the most probable. Thus, it is roughly contemporary or slightly earlier than the Belevi Monument below.

A nice quarry from which stones for the tumulus’ construction were taken can be seen near the entrance passage. Great skill went into the design of the circuit wall, as the stones of lower courses have grooves on their upper surface into which bosses on the bottom of the higher courses fit. This feature prevented outward collapse from the force of the tumulus bulk inside and above the wall—another engineering marvel of this well-constructed tomb!3

A scatter of squared blocks on the summit of the mound suggest a monument stood there, high above the local terrain. But to whom? There is no sarcophagus or inscription to identify the owner. Clearly a person of some import, they remain unknown and without even the speculations that accompany the occupant of the Belevi Monument over which their final resting place silently looms.

Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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1 Shane McInnis, so enthralled by the experience, made a pronouncement claiming the tumulus as his own.

2 See (in German), Sandor Kasper, “Tumulus von Belevi,” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1975): 223-32.

3 See (in English!), George L. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 149-50.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time: The Belevi Monument

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 1.

This is the first true post in my series “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour,” for which one should read my introduction. As noted there, I selected my first site to continue the theme of the introduction and serve as an exemplar of the kind of places I want to feature.

The Background: potentially boring, but necessary to connect to the aforementioned theme

One of the curious things about the Seven Wonders of the ancient world is that, except for the Pyramid(s) of Egypt, all are essentially or completely gone. The sites of most are reasonably well established; but even where vestiges remain, they hardly hint at the structure’s former splendor . . .  and certainly do not evoke wonder. This is especially ironic in the case of the one Wonder (apart from the Great Pyramid) that was built to preserve and amplify the memory of a single person: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. An uninformed modern consideration of the name might create the assumption that this Wonder was a funeral building for some dude named Halicarnassus. That would be fake news.

Actually, Halicarnassus (Greek: Ἁλικαρνᾱσσός) was an ancient Greek city (modern Bodrum) in Caria (SW Turkey). It became the capital of a quasi-independent fourth-century bc kingdom under Mausolus, who was the dude. Mausolus was a “dynast,” nominally the satrap of the region under the Persian king, but with hereditary royal power. He built up his realm, and apparently his ego, through political savy and occasional rebellion. At his death, his sister, wife, and successor Artemisia oversaw construction of his huge and elaborate funerary monument. The structure came to be known—as typically, with the Hellenistic Greek suffix –εῖον—as the Μαυσωλεῖον (“[the shrine] of Mausolus”), normalized through Latin as The Mausoleum. It became the epitome of, and thus the actual word for, an elaborate funeral structure. The irony for Mausolus is that everyone knows his name as a term for a memorial building, but hardly anyone remembers the man. And his monument is no longer there—it was reduced to construction material by the Knights Hospitaller to fortify the castle of St. Peter in Bodrum harbor in the 15th century.

But this post is not about The Mausoleum.1 It is about a similar, smaller, and actually preserved funerary monument some 110 kilometers to the north, not far from ancient Ephesus. It was apparently the second-largest tomb structure in Asia Minor—after The Mausoleum—and thus easily overlooked in compendia of Wonders.

The Belevi Monument

The Belevi Monument, so-called for its proximity to Belevi, a town near Selçuk (ancient Ephesus), is today a hulking mass of cut bedrock, fallen stone masonry, and heaps of marble decorative fragments. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, the monument remains an impressive sight and ranks as a wondrous site in my book (if you haven’t read the introductory post for this series, do so now for that dichotomy!).

As there are no surviving inscriptions, opinions on the date of the monument rest on analysis of stylistic details of the decorative remains. Most favor a Hellenistic date of the third century bc, and suggest the occupant of the tomb must have been an important ruler after Alexander the Great. The Seleucid king Antiochus II is an intriguing possibility, given that he died in Ephesus in 246 BC. While his body would normally be returned to Syria for burial, political conditions of the day may have prompted burial near Ephesus. His wife Laodice, under suspicion of having poisoned him, also may have felt motivated to make an extravagant show of burying and memorializing Antiochus II. Others suggested a date in the 4th century, during Persian domination,2 in which case a nameless local nabob lay there. The most recent study claims that pottery suggests a date in the early 3rd century,3 perhaps too early for Antiochus II.

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A reconstruction of the Belevi Monument, based on one done by the original investigators in the 1930s, which heavily influenced subsequent reconstruction of the Mausoleum; origin of this version unknown (a search produced it on Pinterest, where there was no attribution)

In the final analysis, we cannot be sure who occupied this now most-fabulous, but relatively unappreciated, ancient tomb of Asia Minor. I cannot help but find more irony in that fact. But that is one of the things that makes the site intriguing.

The Site (38.0147° N, 27.4722° E)

The Belevi Monument is visible, if you know where to look, from the O-31 Izmir-Aydin Otoyol (Turkey has fantastic limited-access motorways). But to visit the site, one must exit at the Belevi interchange, drive through the town, cross under the O-31, turn through a tunnel back under the O-31 and arrive via a decent gravel road. The ruins are obvious and are surrounded by a rather effective fence. Before 2015, the gate was generally open but the site is now apparently closed and the official gate locked. There is another somewhat-official access (not involving climbing the fence!) which I used on my two most recent visits.

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The Belevi Monument today: Taken from the hill (looking NNW) from which the central core was cut; the burial chamber is discernible at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr; Latitude/Longitude: 38.014550/27.472482)

The monument itself is impressive for a tomb in its sheer bulk. The central rock block, created by cutting away the hillside, is almost 30 meters square and over 11 meters high. It was faced with marble blocks on a stepped base with a Doric frieze at the top—from which numerous triglyphs lie strewn about. The facing covered and concealed the burial chamber, cut in the central core opposite the remaining hill face.

Belevi Monument
The funerary chamber on the N side; taken as a panorama in order to avoid the pesky tree (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Above the solid block core was a built (faux-burial?) chamber surrounded by a marble colonnade and topped by pairs of winged lions and urns. The roof was probably pyramidal in shape, but this is not certain. Some of the winged lions and the sarcophagus from the burial chamber are in the Selçuk museum, but a myriad of column, capital, frieze, and other decorative fragments remain scattered about the site for inspection.

Belevi Monument
The Belevi Monument from the NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

It is possible, but rather precarious and probably imprudent, to climb to the top of the ruins. Folks apparently have been doing so for some time, however, as there is an ancient mancala (game) board carved into the highest remaining masonry stone on the NE corner. Mancala (and other game) boards can be found on ancient ruins and streets around the eastern Mediterranean, but this one has perhaps the best setting of any I have seen.

Belevi Monument
View from the atop the Belevi Monument: the corner stone at left center has the mancala board (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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The mancala board; left far corner of stone (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A Digital Sight on a Site You Must Check Out:

Owing to the proximity of the hill from which the base was cut away and some large trees just opposite the burial chamber, the Belevi Monument is surprisingly difficult to photograph from the ground, so the following may compensate for my attempts.

I serendipitously stumbled upon a spectacular 3D photogrammetric model of the Belevi Monument ruins by a group in Istanbul. Presumably they used drone-produced pictures for this, as evidenced by the problematic trees and lack of detail of the burial chamber. In any case, it is awesome. If you look carefully and use my pic as a guide, you can even see the mancala board on the top stone at the NE corner! Go here to see it: https://www.oddviz.com/portfolio/the-belevi-mausoleum/.

While looking around for better photo angles in June 2016, my companions and I noticed an odd shape on top of the adjacent hill . . . and, of course, decided to investigate (if it involves a steep uphill climb in the heat, it must be good, right?). What we found will be the subject of a follow-up post—next time, on “You Won’t Get This on the Bus Tour!”

Thanks for reading!

-Ancient Dan

1 For The Mausoleum, see John and Elizabeth Romer, The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination (London: Seven Dials, 1995), 77-106; or Peter Clayton and Martin J. Price, eds., The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1990), 100-123.

2 See the overview in George E. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 148-49 (unfortunately, now out of print).

3 See the online summary of research by Austrian Academy of Sciences, “The Mausoleum of Belevi,” https://www.oeaw.ac.at/en/ancient/research/research-archive/ancient-cults-and-burials/belevi/.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

Ancient Dan

Something went wrong on Rapa Nui. And something caused the moai to fall.

[This is part 6 of a series; see the others here.]

1722: Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen went ashore for a single day after “discovering” (and naming for Europeans) Easter Island. He and his crew observed numerous moai standing on platforms, investigated them briefly and wrongly concluded they were cast rather than carved. Roggeveen did not report seeing any fallen moai, nor did he or any subsequent visitor report any activity of creating, transporting, or erecting them. Most infer that moai construction had ceased by this time. Roggeveen found the natives to be quite friendly and unafraid, until a misunderstanding resulting in a shooting incident in which several Rapanui were killed. Nevertheless, contact was reestablished and the Dutch “left like good friends.”1

1770: Spanish captain Gonzalez led a slightly more lengthy visit. The…

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

Something went wrong on Rapa Nui. And something caused the moai to fall.

[This is part 6 of a series; see the others here.]

1722: Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen went ashore for a single day after “discovering” (and naming for Europeans) Easter Island. He and his crew observed numerous moai standing on platforms, investigated them briefly and wrongly concluded they were cast rather than carved. Roggeveen did not report seeing any fallen moai, nor did he or any subsequent visitor report any activity of creating, transporting, or erecting them. Most infer that moai construction had ceased by this time. Roggeveen found the natives to be quite friendly and unafraid, until a misunderstanding resulting in a shooting incident in which several Rapanui were killed. Nevertheless, contact was reestablished and the Dutch “left like good friends.”1

1770: Spanish captain Gonzalez led a slightly more lengthy visit. The Spanish rightly judged the statues to be carved and again only saw standing moai.

1774: The famous British Captain Cook saw standing moai, and his expedition artist made the first known depiction of the same.

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“A View of the Monuments of Easter Island [Rapanui],” William Hodges (circa 1776) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13275.html
But Cook also reported many statues were toppled, ahu were apparently used for burials, and skeletal material was seen scattered about on moai sites.

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Drawing by William Hodges from Cook, Voyage around the South Pole; note standing and ruined moai and skeletal material in this romanticized rendering

1804: Russian visitors saw only 20 standing moai.

1830: British sailors on HMS Serigapatam saw only eight moai standing.

1838: the last report of a single standing moai was made by French Commander Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars; apparently Paro the tallest ever erected on an ahu.

Te Piro Kura: Paro
Paro, the tallest moai ever erected on an ahu, in its final fallen face-down state at Te Piro Kura on the northeast coast of Rapa Nui (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

1868: J Linton Palmer, British naval surgeon aboard the HMS Topaze could find no standing moai on Easter Island. Paro had fallen, along with the rest.

From the data above, moai creation and erection had ceased before the European discovery of Easter Island. But it was only in the 140 years after European contact that all of the impressive monuments were destroyed. What caused cessation of carving and what caused the statues to fall? And are those questions intertwined or unrelated?

The major tourist sites on Easter Island have moai re-erected on restored ahu, and these are the majestic scenes familiar to the public—along with the iconic “heads” of partly-buried statues at the Rano Raraku quarry. However, I find the unrestored sites with their toppled moai and scattered pukao much more evocative. 

One Makhi
Ahu One Makhi (photo by Felicia J Browning; © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many studies note that most moai were found lying prone, apparently intentionally felled onto strategically placed large stones so as to break the neck. By breaking the neck and planting the image face down, the reasoning goes, the mana (divine power) of the moai was thus voided.

Vaihu
Moai fallen in a prone position at Vaihu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Akahanga
Moai fallen in a prone position at Akahanga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But, in fact, moai can be found fallen in both prone and supine positions, sometimes mixed on a single destroyed ahu. Potential explanations abound.

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Fallen moai and pukao at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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Supine fallen moai with broken neck at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

I’ll turn to the questions posed above in the next post.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 51.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 5: Hats Make the Moai?

Until now, this series of posts on Easter Island has not considered embellishments to moai, of which the most obvious are the addition of so-called “top knots.” As promised, this brief note takes up the topic. In case you want to review, previous posts have reviewed: 1) Easter Island (Rapa Nui) itself; 2) basics on moai and ahu; 3) how/where moai were made; and 4) moai transport via roads to their ahu.

I have already noted the clear development of moai over time, especially in terms of increasing height and weight, but also in style. Another major feature of some later moai is the addition of “top knots,” as they are conventionally called.

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai, sporting a pukao “top knot” and (reproduction) eyes at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many, but not all, late moai (standing when Europeans first came to Easter Island) sported a large cylindrical “top knot” atop their heads, called pukao by the native Rapanui. Invariably these were made from red scoria, a much more porous and harder volcanic stone than the tuff from which the vast majority of moai were carved. All known pukao were produced from the distinctive red scoria found at Puna Pau, a quarry on the central west side of the island—quite distant from Rano Raraku, where the statues were made.

Puna Pau
Completed pukao of red scoria, abandoned before transport at the Puna Pau quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Pukao themselves were quite large and heavy. For transport, it is assumed (without much debate) that they were simply rolled to various ahu for finishing and installation (that is a somewhat more difficult problem) on standing moai. They appear on moai with varying styles and always seem to project precariously forward over the brow. Not all ahu featured statues with top knots, but it is interesting that only ahu with pukao-crowned moai also frequently featured bands of red scoria facing on their front face.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach, with red scoria panel facing and pukao on its moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, you should be wondering by now: what did the pukao represent? There are three main options (not involving aliens). The designation “top knot” represents the idea that pukao represent tied-up hair, the red color because of the practice of using red dye. A second possibility is that pukao represent hats of some kind, bolstered by the mania for (and constant theft of) the hats of early European explorers by native Rapanui. Another, and in my mind most convincing, suggestion is that pukao represent the rare red-feather headdresses worn by chiefs throughout Polynesia.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Detail of Moai with different pukao on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 Pukao, along with the increased size of moai, seem to represent one-upmanship in which clans or chiefs attempted to outdo each other in the constructions on their respective ahu. Was this competition a prelude to the impending collapse of Rapa Nui culture? Some conclude that “Easter Island chiefs . . . acted so as to accelerate deforestation rather than to prevent it: their status depended on their putting up bigger statues or monuments than their rivals. They were trapped in a competitive spiral, such that any chief or king who put up smaller statues or monuments to spare the forests would have been scorned and lost his job. That’s a regular problem with competitions for prestige, which are judged on a short time frame.”1  Stay tuned for more on this issue a couple of posts from now . . .2

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Moai with loin cloth belt and tattoo indications at Anakena (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Another form of embellishment appears on moai in the form of decorations that represent loincloth cords and perhaps the tattoos of the depicted departed chiefs. Since most moai are severely weathered, it is not clear how extensive this practice was. It is only clearly preserved on some mostly-buried statues at Rano Raraku and at Anakena Beach, where fallen moai lay in preserving sand instead of exposed to the elements.

Indeed, all the moai on Easter Island were eventually toppled and their pukao strewn about like hats tossed at a graduation. I will turn to the fall of the moai in the next installment . . .

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1 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 431.
2As a preview, Diamond posits an ecological disaster on Easter Island as the cause for the collapse of the moai-building culture there, following John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 4: the Mystery of Moai Moving

One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is the question of how the large statues, called moai, were transported from the one quarry where they were made to their points of display upon the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, all around the island. This series has already explored some basics on: the physical nature of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the ahu and moai; and the carving of moai in the Rano Raruku quarry. We turn now to the moving of moai.

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Ahu and Moai of Easter Island (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

How Easter Islanders could effectively move hundreds of huge monolithic creations without modern conveyance is a long-debated topic. Lacking metals when Europeans arrived, the Rapanui (native Easter Islanders) were a Stone Age culture—that is not a denigration, but the reality of isolated life in that remote volcanic place.

Rano Raraku
Waiting on the Bus: completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, ever vainly awaiting transport to ahu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Data which made the original transport problem and proposed solutions more vexing: some 300 ahu are found all around the island, at distances up to nine miles from the Rana Raraku quarry. The largest moai transported to ahu were nearly 10 meters (almost 33 ft) tall and weighed around 75 metric (82 US) tons. The calculated “Statistically Average Moai” (dubbed SAM by Jo Ann Van Tilburg and her Easter Island Statue Project)1 is 4.05 m (13.2 ft) tall and weighs in at 12.5 metric (13.78 US) tons. Easter Island was devoid of trees of any significant size (for use as levers or rollers) when first seen by European explorers. There is no evidence the wheel was known or utilized by Rapanui in prehistory. They also did not have draft animals (nor any native land mammals at all).

Rano Raraku
More completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, with a transport road barely discernible in a meandering path roughly from the statues towards the left face of the Rano Kau crater in the far background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 To make it more interesting, the collected cultural memory (ethnography) is unanimous that the moai—imbued with the mana of the deceased ariki (chiefs) they represented—actually “walked” from the quarry to their ahu. All of this is fuel for the “Ancient Aliens” people and one does not have to look far online to find extraterrestrial origin theories for the moai. But such theories only develop and take root because of a widespread assumption: that ancient people lacked the capacity to solve problems we find daunting. Our inability, from a modern perspective, to conceive of working solutions for ancient problems encourages a disbelief which, coupled with cultural elitism, is a recipe for latent racism in which “primitive” becomes “savage” or even worse.

One part of the transport solution has been known since 1914, when Katherine Routledge recognized the traces of several tracks radiating from Rano Raraku quarry and deduced they were for moai. Indeed, excavation has confirmed they were built as roads with a standard surface design. Moai can be found lying about along those paths, apparently abandoned when they broke—or fell—during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
A fallen moai on the road (called Te Ara O Te Moai) leading SW from Rano Raraku quarry, where statue heads can be seen on the left slope of the crater in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Several “experimental archaeology” efforts have attempted to show how the moai were moved.2 Some of these have assumed the statues were transported horizontally—laying down—with both supine (face up) and prone (face down) positions posited. But abandoned statues lie (none were found standing) along the moai roads in both prone and supine positions. Further, many moai on roads are not broken, suggesting they were abandoned because they fell from a vertical position during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
Unbroken fallen prone moai on the Te Ara O Te Moai road (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most recent, and in my mind most convincing, reconstruction of moai transport on Easter Island proposes a system not requiring huge amounts of timber, manageable by a relatively small number of workers, and even satisfies the oral tradition of “walking” moai.3 Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo noted that moai have a low center of gravity, a significant forward lean (in examples at the quarry or in transport), appear to be slimmed down in the final finishing at their ahu, and have a D-shaped footprint with the straight side at the back. Based on this they proposed a system of rocking and stabilization by three teams pulling on ropes attached to the head or neck of the moai.

 

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Rocking to one side on the D-shaped base will cause the opposite side to pivot forward. The low center of gravity and guy-ropes held from behind keep the statute from falling over. When it rocks back past vertical in the opposite direction, the moai will pivot forward on the other side. In this way, the statue can be “walked” forward with coordinated rather than brute effort. See the results (preceded by a review of other theories) in this clever National Geographic video

Next in this series: embellishments of moai.

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1Jo Ann Van Tilburg, Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
2A review of attempts up to 1998 is conviniently summarized by PBS’ Nova series here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/past.html.
3With details summarized in Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).

 

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 3: the Making of a Moai

Following an initial physical introduction to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and an overview of the moai (statues) and ahu (ritual platforms), this is the third installment of the series on Easter Island. If you “skipped those classes,” you should do the remedial readings (part 1 and part 2) and I won’t have to redefine terms and catch you up! While I am waxing professorial, let me add that you should always read the footnotes.1

While the word moai is combined in the names of certain wooden statues—notably the emaciated male figures called moai kavakava—term used alone applies particularly to the monolithic statues of Easter Island. “Monolithic” means consisting of a single stone and in archaeological contexts usually implies significant size.

Ahu Huri A Urenga
Felicia’s favorite Moai at Ahu Huri A Urenga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Dating of megalithic monuments is fraught with difficulty, but it seems that the moai were carved, moved, and installed on ahu over a lengthy period sometime between 1100 and 1680 (a generation before the arrival of Europeans). Most researchers posit a somewhat shorter range within those extreme dates.2 While the most famous statues appear nearly identical in widely circulated pictures, there is a clear development of moai style and size over the period of their construction. Old moai reused as fill in later ahu construction or expansion demonstrate as much.

Tongariki: older Moai fragments from Ahu platform
Older and smaller moai fragments from Ahu Tongariki’s platform show a variety of styles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Volcanic rock—the only stone available on Easter—comes in many forms with varying qualities. A few statues are made from hard basalt (hard, fine-grained lava) or red scoria (dense, highly pitted lava) stone, but the vast majority of moai (and all that clearly stood on ahu) were carved from tuff. Tuff is compacted and consolodated volcanic ash. It is usually easily carved but the surface hardens with exposure to air. An excellent source of pinkish-gray tuff is found in and around the rim of the crater called Rano Raraku. The quarry there is the very near exclusive source of moai associated with ahu on Easter Island, and nearly half of known and cataloged moai are still found at Rano Raraku. This can be seen by the concentration of red moai symbols in my map:3

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Rano Raraku is the “place with all the heads” and the source of most recognizable photos of moai. This is because hundreds of statues were created there and still awaited transport for placement on ahu when that whole process ceased (a “mystery” to be covered in a subsequent post). Moai left in upright positions in pits were gradually buried by erosion to various heights, most often with only the head exposed. The effect today is that of an abandoned sales lot, like some bizarre version of those concrete statue places found outside cities in seemingly every part of the world today—and oddly similar to a statue “factory” about which I have posted in Turkey.

Rano Raraku
A typical view of partly-buried standing moai at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But Rano Raraku features moai in every stage of completion, from just laid out, to shaped but not separated from the rock, to standing and awaiting final details, and ready for transport. Statues were carved in a horizontal position and mostly completed while still attached to the natural rock by a backbone ridge.

Rano Raraku
Roughed out but unfinished moai still attached to natural rock at Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The connecting ridge was broken away and the freed moai slid downhill into a pit wherein it would stand vertical for finishing and details. Unfinished and finished examples stand adjacent in this pic:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the more-distant one at center right completed, but the one in the foreground with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

And also in this view of the same statues from the other side:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the near one completed; the one in the left background with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most impressive unfinished moai is also the largest ever attempted, at 21 meters (69 ft) tall, over twice the height of the tallest one ever erected on an ahu. It would have weighed about 250 metric tons (275 US tons) if completed! 

 

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That this giant could be successfully moved for display is reasonably doubted. Still, the largest moai ever successfully installed on an ahu stood 10 meters (about 32 ft) and weighed 74 metric tons (about 82 US tons)! As this was no small feat, transport of these these behemoths is another “mystery” of Easter Island, to which we’ll turn in the next post.

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1Yes, you should. Your reward for looking at the footnotes: moai jokes.
2Scholars tend to argue about such things; for an overview, see Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011), 9-18 (and throughout the book).
3An excellent online database/map, which also shows the incredible concentration of moai at Rano Raraku is provided by B. Shepardson, “Moai database–Rapa Nui,” 2007; http://www.terevaka.net/moai.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu

Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.

The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.

Rano Raraku
Moai buried to different extents on the outer slope of Rano Raraku quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1 Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . .  << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, with its seven restored moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, from the side, showing the wing extensions and platform construction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?

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[Updated 2 July 2018: better map!]


1Moai and ahu are both singular and plural.