The Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days

So today (still, barely, as I write this), 21 December 2018, is the Winter Solstice, making it first day of winter; and tomorrow is a full moon. Though we refer to them in terms of full days, both the solstice and full moons are momentary events: when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky and when the moon is 180° from (opposite of) the sun, respectively. Those moments occur this year within a 24-hour period. Thus they effectively coincide, as we cannot discern the difference visually. For example, the moon appears “full” tonight, but will not technically be so until tomorrow (December 22) at 11:49 CST (17:49 UTC). And, the sun’s rays penetrate to the burial chambers of the tombs described in my previous post (here) not only on the solstices, but on the few surrounding days as well.

While researching how accurately the ancients could discern these phenomena, I stumbled upon an interesting (to me, anyway) bit of cultural information. It turns out that “halcyon days,” a term now used for a period of calm or peace (frequently nostalgically), originally referred to the few days surrounding the Winter Solstice. For this, we turn to Classical mythology.

Claros: End of the Sacred Way (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A relatively little-known myth referenced by several ancient writers holds that Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (guardian of the winds), married Ceyx, son of the morning star (Lucifer!), and together they ruled the city of Trachis in Thessaly. Some sources report that they loving referred to each other as Hera and Zeus, which offended the real gods. Ceyx embarked on a journey to consult the oracle at Claros, across the Aegean, and the offended gods allowed a thunderstorm to capsize the ship, drowning Ceyx.

Alcyone grieves on seeing the body of Ceyx; Ceyx and Alcyone – Richard Wilson, R. A. (1713-1782)

In her sorrow, Alcyone hurled herself off a breakwater to certain death, but was transformed by some merciful unnamed deity into a Kingfisher; halcyon in Latin, from the Greek αλκυών. With dead Ceyx also thus transformed, the pair nested and Alcyone laid eggs which were sheltered from winter winds by Aeolus for seven days (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 410-748) preceding and after the Winter Solstice (Plutarch, Moralia. Whether Land or Sea Animals Are Cleverer 35). These calm days were called “halcyon days” by ancient sailors (Hyginus, Fabula 65), who greatly revered Alcyone on account of their safe passage at that time.

My own experience of getting out an about in the days around the Winter Solstice have not evoked the phrase “halcyon days” —especially today, as I navigated among hordes of crazed shoppers to and through various local businesses. It seems we have created the very opposite of halcyon days in this season. And as Winter Solstice 2018 heralds the heaviest travel day for Christmas 2018, air, land, and sea-farers in the eastern U.S. are facing treacherous weather. May we fare better than Ceyx and find mercy from a known God.

My comparison of Christmas Chaos to the Halcyon Days of yore brings up the question of the relation of yuletide to the Winter Solstice. Is there a connection? Could be . . .

Next: Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season.

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The Winter Solstice and Hope

Today (21 December 2018) the Winter Solstice will occur at 16:23 (4:23pm) CST (22:23 UTC). It is the moment at which the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, its most southerly point in Earth’s sky for the year. The Winter Solstice marks the official beginning of winter and is the origin of much tradition and practice in human culture—perhaps to include when we celebrate Christmas (we’ll get to that in a subsequent post). There are plenty of sites that explain the solstices; earthsky.org has perhaps the coolest visual representation here. As usual, Ancient Dan focuses on the ancient and weird connections; and a three-part series is anticipated.

Our modern lives are too indoor, too climate-controlled, and too well-lit for a constant awareness of celestial phenomena. The ancients, however, were keenly aware of such things. Hence our calendar months; though adjusted for the solar year, they have origin in the ever-visible cycles of the moon. The struggle to reconcile lunar cycles with the solar year dominate the history of the calendar and its religious ties. Which heavenly body should dictate human ritual? The moon has a rhythmic influence but the sun rules the sky as the “greater light” (Gen 1: 16).* More importantly, for our purposes, the sun clearly determines the seasons.

Brú na Bóinne: Newgrange, looking NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The influence of the sun on daylight time and seasons is more pronounced at higher latitudes (meaning more northerly for the Near East and Classical worlds). So, it is not surprising that alignments to solar phenomena are more obvious in megalithic monuments in northern Europe. Stonehenge is the most famous example, but there are others.

Newgrange passage tomb; view of entrance from SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The most interesting are tombs, such as Newgrange in Ireland (see a good overview site here). Newgrange is a Neolithic “passage tomb,” in which a narrow passageway of megalithic stones leads to a built chamber under a tumulus mound of stones or earth. At Newgrange, the sun penetrates into the tomb chamber at sunrise on a few mornings immediately around the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon is facilitated by a “roof box” opening above the entrance that permits light to stream directly down the 60 ft. passageway.

Newgrange; entrance to the tomb passage, with “window box” above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

Sadly, photos are impossible in the chamber at Newgrange (crowds and rules). Happily, there is another site that is more remote and less controlled with similar features.

Carrowkeel passage tombs; tomb G in foreground (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

A number of passage tombs on isolated hills can be seen at Carrowkeel, in County Sligo. These are considerably smaller than Newgrange, but with better ambiance than the crowded tourist site. One of them, Cairn G, has a roof-box, as seen in the previous pic. The passage is short (in length and height!) and can be entered by those able to negotiate the large entrance stone. The size makes it difficult to photograph, but I offer the following views:

Carrowkeel passage tomb G; burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; looking out from chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; panorama looking from tomb chamber (left) to entrance and roof-box (right) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

From an engineering point of view, it is tempting to ascribe a stress-relieving function to the roof-box (i.e., to take pressure off the entrance lintel). But, roof-boxes are not a consistent design feature of passage tombs. For example, the adjacent Cairns at Carrowkeel (Cairn H, pic below, and K) have no roof-boxes, despite an apparently greater mass of tumulus stones above the entrance.

Carrowkeel Cairn H (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

As at Newgrange, the alignment of the rare roof-box at Carrowkeel Cairn G seems significant. The sun shines directly through it to the back of the tomb chamber at sunsets on days surrounding the Summer Solstice. As there are no written sources in the Neolithic period (these things date to about 3200 BC), scholars must extrapolate the intended significance. It usually goes something like this: the sun was seen as in decline or even dying during its annual reduced time overhead and recession to the south; the Winter Solstice marked the end of the sun’s decline and beginning of its growth; the Summer Solstice, then, marked the beginning of the sun’s decline; and this cycle was celebrated in solar worship and as a form of hope for the deceased.

While I don’t want to recommend Pagan religion, it is interesting to speculate that they may have found some comfort and hope in a generally depressing part of the year. Maybe that aspect is part of why we celebrate Christmas when we do (but, again, more about that later). Certainly Christmas is a promise of redemption in a tough season.

Meanwhile, back to Newgrange. The interpretation usually assumed (as above) holds that the Newgrange tomb is oriented to mark the end of a downturn (death of those buried within?) and the hope of increasing light, warmth, and life with the sun’s reversal. Perhaps ironically, our visit there was 10 days after life as I knew it suffered a sudden and unexpected “death.” But it was at Newgrange that my wife and I met new friends that continue to bring joy to our life as we now know it.

New friends Denise and James Ricks at New Grange (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

Next up: Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days (which sounds counter-intuitive): Click Here!

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Footnote

*Then again, as noted by Pink Floyd, “the sun is eclipsed by the moon” (see here for some eclipse thoughts involving PF).

The Lost Derelict Aircraft

As I noted in my last Derelict Warplanes I have Known post, some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. And some serendipitous ones have surprises.

It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.

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Parts of a jet engine on Mokule’ia Beach; Oahu, HawaiʻiHawaiʻi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).

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Aft fuselage with partial airline name and logo on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.

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Assorted plane crash debris, apparently collected, on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).

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Inverted aft fuselage of Lockheed L-1011 on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.

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As close as I got to the engine on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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The Aftereffects of Storms

Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.

Midas city:
With the assailant moving away to the Northeast; Mark Nicovich stands drenched and battered on the acropolis plateau of Midas City, a Phrygian site named for the most famous Phrygian king (late morning of 28 May 2011; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.

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Roadside Sivrihisar Uçağı monument in Eskişehir Province, Turkey, featuring a Breguet 14 (replica) and (incongruously) an F-4E Phantom; both Turkish Air Force veterans (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series). 

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument; and the edge of the lurking thunderstorm (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.

Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument with explanatory signage . . . and our surprisingly fast and durable rental Skoda (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.

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The Sivrihisar Uçağı Breguet 14, captured from the Greeks (pic from www.HAVACIYIZ.com)

Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.

In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:

Gordion: tumuli
Tumuli (tombs) and corn poppies (of a decidedly Turkish red) that emerge after spring rains at Gordion (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 8: A Warning to Us All

This is the end (for now, at least) of my series of posts on Easter Island (sorry it has gotten so long; I got really interested). Having covered the remoteness of moai makers, the meaning of moai, moai manufacture, moai moving, moai mania, moai mysteries, and moai myths, it is now time to give my Rapa Nui wrap-up.

In a nutshell, a culture in complete isolation on a marginal island in the south Pacific managed to create unexpectedly large statues (moai) on equally impressive platforms (ahu) with stone age technology and limited resources. The organization and innovation required (unless one goes with ancient aliens) implies an advanced and flourishing society. But, when Europeans arrived, the great construction projects had ceased and the Rapanui people were living in poverty on a nearly barren island. Within another 140 years, every moai had crashed to the ground and the once impressive ahu lay in total ruin, the sites of makeshift tombs.

Akivi
From Order . . . (re erected moai at Ahu Akivi; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Repeating the question of my previous post: What happened; and why should we care? In other words, what caused the cultural collapse on Rapa Nui, and is it a warning to greater modern society? Is Easter Island a post-apocalyptic preview?

Akahanga
. . . to Chaos (Broken moai head among ruins at Akahanga; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The first question (what happened?) is the most difficult to answer, but the history of interpretation provides some instruction in itself. Archaeologists and historians inevitably tend to view data through the lens of their own times and experience, and this can be seen in theories about Easter Island. My admittedly over-simplified review of academic reconstructions follows.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure and book, organized and led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955. He theorized that the “Long Ears” were the original settlers of the island from South America and responsible for the monumental building, but were nearly eradicated by a rebellion of later settlers of Polynesian origin, the “Short Ears.”1 There is an implied ethnic/racial bias in Heyerdahl’s view, especially since he preferred to think of the South American settlers as ultimately hailing from Europe. It was a theory of the times; now definitively disproven by genetic and other data which show Easter Island was settled only by Polynesians. Nevertheless, how can ethnic bias and violence—seemingly on the rise in our times—not be a warning to us all?

New data emerged in the 1980s-90s demonstrating that the treeless Easter Island found by 18th century Europeans was once heavily forested with tall palm trees, akin to Wine Palms found in Chile. Further, the palms’ decline and extinction occurred during the time span of human occupation and seems to have preceded the end of moai erection. Significant data supports ecological disaster, with deforestation as a major component, as the cause for societal collapse and starvation.2 

Anakena
Palms at Anakena today are not native; indeed, the average temperature of Easter Island would not have permitted coconut palms like these, if transplanted by the settling Polynesians, to fruit; today however, because of global warming, they do bear coconuts! The palms that once heavily forested Easter Island were similar to Wine Palms of Chile (the largest of all palms) but are now extinct through deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One view is that deforestation was caused by cutting trees for moai transport and erection and that depletion of the trees brought that activity to an end.3  More likely, the forests were cut to create farmland for an increasing population and to provide cooking fuel. In any case, deforestation occasioned many other problems, such as soil erosion, loss of groundwater retention and thus habitat for taro and other crops, depletion of building material and fuel, and a lack of wood to make boats for deep-water fishing. The loss of deep-water protein and other food sources would precipitate a spiraling shortage and result in social chaos.

Papa Vaka: Tuna and Shark petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Papa Vaka of tuna and shark, deep-water species reachable only with large canoes, which were unavailable after deforestation on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Things apparently got very bad.

Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum
A kavakava statue, the emaciatied depictions of which support the starvation and desperation recounted in ethnological memory; from the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are even claims of cannibalism in the ethnological record, although unconfirmed by archaeology (see caption of pic below). As a further consequence, destruction of Rapa Nui’s environment by deforestation also trapped the inhabitants on the island, as boats sufficient for escape could no longer be built! Easter Island, with a population unable to leave their isolated home and resources depleted by their own overuse, seems a microcosm for the Earth itself and a warning for its inhabitants wantonly exploiting its bounty.

Ana Kai Tangata
Ana Kai Tangata, often translated “Eat Man Cave” and thus cited as evidence for cannibalism; however the name can also as easily render “Man Eat Cave” (meaning a cave where man eats)—ironically, this very cave was used for a scene in the 1994 film Rapa Nui in which the protagonists escape the island in a boat after the last tree was felled and chaos erupted (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Not everyone is comfortable with the notion that Easter Islanders caused an ecological disaster of their home; and, perhaps more to the point, many resist the idea that we all may be doing the same. Consequently, there has been some push back and presentation of mitigating evidence. As we have seen in this series, the moai were demonstrably transported without extensive timber requirements, so deforestation cannot be blamed on monumental moai mania. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Polynesian Rats feasted on the small nuts of the Easter Island Palm and prevented regrowth of trees, so man was not the only agent of deforestation. And, it is rightly pointed out, the Rapanui were marvelously innovative in the face of environmental change, evidenced by their resourceful use of lithic mulch to salvage marginal crop areas and development of sheltered crop enclosures to conserve moisture.5 

Ahu Te Peu
The northwest coast of Rapa Nui from the area of Ahu Te Peu, showing the treeless landscape strewn with stones used as lithic mulch, an ingenious method of preserving some soil productivity after deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Still, evidence is irrefutable that islanders cut down the old growth (and slow regrowth) forests. If Polynesian Rats prevented regrowth, it is only because they were brought there by the Polynesian settlers themselves! In effect, the rats turned a theoretically renewable resource into a non-renewable one. They also helped the settlers in irradiating the once-extensive bird population of Easter Island. It is a clear case in the microcosm of catastrophic introduction of an invasive species—like so many examples in the larger world. There is no cultural condemnation here. The Rapanui did not intentionally overpopulate, overfish, introduce invasive species, and deforest with bad intention. But they did do those things and the unforeseen consequences ruined their world.

Surely we are smarter than Easter Islanders that lived a stone-age existence, and surely we can overcome the problems we create with our superior technology. Really? Recall that the famous “mysteries” of Easter Island involved how they manged to build the fantastic monuments—such that we still do not know definitively, and many are willing to chalk it up to aliens! No; these were amazing and innovative people who attempted and accomplished great things . . . and who still ruined their environment beyond repair. We all should take heed. 

Perhaps you, the reader, are not convinced that ecological disaster even occurred on Easter Island or, more likely, that it is relevant to the rest of us. Fair enough. There is something here for everyone. Above I recounted theories that attribute collapse of the microcosm to racial or ethnic conflict and social class rebellion. To these must be added others not discussed for lack of space: tribal warfare, failure of the religious system, epidemic disease introduced by visitors, materialistic culture, disruptive foreign influence, and innate human nature. None of these are lacking in our wider world, but the last one frightens me the most.

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

Proponents of deforestation as the key to ecological collapse like to speculate on the thoughts of the Easter Islander(s) that cut down the last remaining tree. Jared Diamond wonders, “Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research . . .’.”6 While this speculative monologue has rhetorical value for Diamond’s points (with which I agree), I rather think the real thoughts were more disturbing for humanity. If not “acting under orders,” I suspect the last hewer was thinking, “I’m going to get this wood before someone else does!”

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1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
2The data is stated most definitively in John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).
3A violent class struggle between the poor workers and the well-fed elite is easily imagined;as in the historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.
4The view of Easter Island as a microcosm of the future of human society in the face of resource destruction is taken up by Jared Diamond in his excellent (and sobering) book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), chapter 2 and throughout the later discussion.
5See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).
6Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 114.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?

What happened on Easter Island and why should anyone care? It is appropriate first for me to answer a slightly different question pair: what caused me to care enough to dig into the story of the island, and why did I bother to make this series of blog posts about Rapa Nui’s story?

[This is part 7 of a series; see the others (but in reverse order) here.]

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The origin of my interest in Easter Island: Yours truly in 1966 (age 9) at Jungle Land, an amazingly kitschy attraction featuring a pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme in Panama City Beach, on Florida’s “Miracle Strip;”; its “perilous Journey to the Center of the Earth” (led by bikini-clad “jungle girls”) included a large moai head, and I bought a ceramic wood-grained one in the gift shop that day which stayed on my desk as a pencil-holder through my college days (current whereabouts unknown—I blame my brother-in-law Bruce for its disappearance) (photo by the original Daniel C Browning Jr; © Daniel C Browning Jr [Jr])
I wanted to visit Easter Island since my youth—the same was true for my wife—and we had an opportunity to do so this past Spring. I excitedly dove into reading about Rapa Nui’s monuments, history, and “mysteries.” As I came to the academic literature with minimal specific knowledge, but with archaeological and historical experience in other areas, I found the history of interpretations of Easter Island particularly fascinating. Looking at the data without an agenda, I was struck by the similarity of issues in scholarly reconstructions to problems in my own fields. For me, Easter Island became a case-study of how traditional material and interpretation of physical remains can be used (and abused) in historical reconstruction.

It also happens that I developed an interest in the collapses of civilizations and “ends of the world as we knew it,” such as the end of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world (about 1200 BC). Easter Island provides an opportunity to study (and for many to opine upon!) a collapse of a completely isolated culture (at least before 1722). As for why anyone else should care, it turns out that many have interpreted the collapse of Rapa Nui’s impressive moai culture as a warning for the world at large—something of a pre-apocalyptic preview, as it were.

Tongariki from Rano Raraku
The largest ahu on Easter Island, Tongariki, viewed from from Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Before taking on the collapse of Rapa Nui statue culture (in the next installment), I turn to whether the fall of the moai is directly related to the cessation of their construction. In other words, did the forces that brought an end to moai making, moving, and erection on ahu also cause them to be toppled?

Ethnological legends gathered by early 20th century researchers spoke of a major conflict between Rapanui groups called the Hanau Momoko and Hanau ‘E‘epe, long translated (wrongly) “short ears” and “long ears” respectively. The former, according to the account, rose up against the latter and eradicated them. As moai generally have elongated ear lobes, it was often assumed that  “long ears” represent chiefs of the privileged elite or dominant clans.

Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku quarry; note the extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Early interpreters could not resist assuming that the conflict remembered in the legends was a memory of a rebellion of the less-privileged group (“short ears”) against the elite (“long ears”). But it turns out that the terms probably have nothing to do with ears and should be translated “thin people” and “stocky people.” If the “thin people” are assumed to be the workers who labored to make statues for the elite “stocky people,” it is a short jump to connect intentional felling of the statues with a class rebellion. This is the view (but with the old translation) assumed in the rather historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Head of a moai on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena with extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Also, as noted in my previous post, all statues were noted standing by European explorers who first came to Rapa Nui in 1722—although moai making had apparently ceased before that time. By 1868, however, all the moai had fallen. It is tempting to relate the toppling of statues with internecine conflict; i.e., victorious groups felling monuments of rival clans. But the ethnology preserves only a single account of a moai pulled down by people (apparently the largest erected one, called Paro). On the other hand, legends also tell of priestly curses and moai falling in a nocturnal conflict between the gods. These memories suggest non-human causes for the toppling of many moai. Indeed, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary,1 the ethnology and physical evidence at fallen moai sites is consistent with consequences expected from earthquakes.2

Vinapu: Ahu Vinapu
A row of moai fallen in the same direction at Ahu Vinapu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island’s many rows of moai fallen in the same direction is is quite like so many lines of fallen columns toppled by earthquakes in Late Antique sites of the eastern Mediterranean—my usual stomping grounds. A good example is the major earthquake in the Sea of Galilee region in 749:

Suseita-Hippos
Church ruins at Hippos above the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; note the columns lying fallen in the same direction, a result of the earthquake of 749 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So the fall of the moai may well be unrelated to the cessation of their creation. Nevertheless, the collapse of the cultural system on Rapa Nui that created the moai and its causes are the main show in terms of why we should care about what happened there. To that I will turn in my final post in this series.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 64.
2Edmundo Edwards, Raul Marchetti, Leopoldo Dominichelti, and Oscar Gonzales-Ferran, “When the Earth Trembled, the Statues Fell,” Rapa Nui Journal 10.1 (March 1996): 1-15.

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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