Manchester Museum to reveal more secrets of the Easter Island statues

By Richard Moss | 27 February 2015

A Manchester Museum exhibition is about to reveal more secrets of the stone statues of Easter Island

a photo of stone carved heads set in a landscape
The Maoi Heads of Easter Island© Adam Stanford
Ever since the Dutch visited the Pacific island of Rapa Nui in 1722, the intriguing monolithic statues they found there have intrigued archaeologists, anthropologists and the public.

Standing or lying toppled across the island, the enigmatic stone faces, with their strong chins and long broad noses, have become synonymous with the mysteries of Polynesian culture prior to the intervention of the west, Christianity and the devastating effects of slavery. But their true meaning and function is still being uncovered.

It is generally accepted that the monumental stone “maoi” of Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, as it was named by the European explorers) were carved between 1250 and 1500 and were, in effect, the ancestors of the islanders – the ‘Rapanui’ – made into monuments.

Different clans competed with each other to erect the biggest and most impressive maoi. But as the practice waned after 1500, many of them were cast down by rival clans. Those that remain have become some of the most recognised archaeological objects in the world.

Yet there are still questions to be answered about their meaning, despite a succession of expert studies.

British archaeologist Katherine Routledge made the first full survey of the island in 1913-14, followed by the renowned Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, who visited in the 1950s. Heyerdahl’s detailed ethnographic history of the Rapanui, which studied their oral histories, resulted in a bestselling book.

Now a team led by Professor Colin Richards, the University of Manchester’s Professor of World Prehistory and Archaeology, has moved the research in a new direction by investigating the strange hats or topknots – known as pukao – that still adorn some of the monuments.

His findings inform a welcome new exhibition at Manchester Museum which includes contributions from the ethnographic and archaeological collections of the  British Museum, the Natural History Museum, World Museum Liverpool, the Horniman Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Natural History Museum. 

“Undoubtedly the massive statues of Rapa Nui have captured the popular imagination since Heyerdahl’s expedition in the 1950s,” says Richards. “But this exhibition attempts to view the monuments in a new way, exploring the qualities and significance of their composition and, in particular, the quarry which produced the distinctive top-knots or pukao which once adorned the sacred heads of the maoi’’.

a photo of a stone carved figure with a large red object on its head
Moai with pukao© Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC
Archaeologists are still not totally sure as to why only some of the moai wear the pukao. But some suggest it could be to do with competition between the clans who built them and a symbol of which clan was most powerful at any one time.

"The very nature of the rock itself, its colour, its properties and the way it weathered were all deeply meaningful in ways archaeologists are only just beginning to comprehend," says Richards.

One thing we do know is that headgear is still very important on Rapa Nui and when Europeans go there islanders frequently steal their hats. Hats which are red (representing vitality and power) make an even more powerful statement about the claim of a clan to draw power from the ancestors.

Richards and his team focused their efforts on the quarry of Puna Pau, where these distinctive stone pukao were quarried from the light volcanic rock called red scoria.

As they studied the way the rocks were extracted and the artefacts left behind, they found evidence that the Rapanui buried their dead in the quarry together with offerings of fine fine objects.

By burying people at the quarry, in the red stone of the volcanic crater, it is thought the Rapanui were making it easier for the dead person’s spirit to enter the afterlife or 'pao'.

On Rapa Nui, volcanoes and other fissures in the rock were believed to serve as a conduit between everyday life (ao) and the afterlife (pao). The burials therefore suggest Puna Pau was more than just a quarry where people went to work, but a highly charged spiritual place of great religious significance to the islanders.

Moreover, the rock was seen a living entity that the Rapanui sometimes decorated with rock art, petroglyphs or carved eyes. Seeing was important to their spiritual beliefs and eyes were often inserted into the stone statues of the ancestors for ceremonies and other spiritual purposes.

The team was also able to get an idea of the sheer scale of the workings at Puna Pau, with an estimated 1,000 cubic meters apparently removed from the volcanic crater. Despite this impressive volume of quarrying, evidence suggests the activity was far from an industrial process.

The stone had to be quarried in an appropriate way and, as well as carving eyes into the quarry face, workers positioned maoi and pukao along the quarry roads(several of which have been newly discovered by the team) to avoid any adverse association with “tapu”.

Tapu, which gives us the word taboo, was the belief that volcanoes, caves, quarries and certain parts of the body were places where you might come across a god or a spirit. Special precautions had to be taken around them. The Rapanui even protected their own mouths, ears and other parts of the body with tattoos.

Fourteen carved pukao, recently located by the archaeologists along a road leading out of the Puna Pau quarry, probably served as markers along the spiritually important route to protect stone carvers and quarry workers from the risks of tapu.

a photo of a carved head on a headland with sea beyond
A Maoi head with pukao © Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC
Longstanding research suggests that most of the full statues of Rapa Nui were carved in-situ, inside another the volcanic crater at Rano Raraku from stone called volcanic tuff. They were then hauled across the island into position. Given the vast size and weight of many of them, archaeologists are still trying to figure out how exactly this was achieved.

Many of them, however, never left the quarry and several great carvings can still be seen at Rano Raraku in various stages of completion. A profusion of stone tools, apparently abandoned there, have led some researchers to conclude that the islanders left them behind as a result of a cataclysmic event. But others believe they were regarded as potentially dangerous or “tapu” because of their association with the quarry.

By the end of the 19th century, few maoi were still standing. Having invested so much effort in creating them, the Rapanui pulled them down.

Greater importance was attached to European ships bringing commodities such as woolen textiles. Competition over access to such goods created dangerous instability amongst the island's clans. As they fought one another, they pulled down each other's maoi, often deliberately breaking the heads off the statues.

The risk of war was minimised by encouraging would-be leaders to take part in the annual Birdman race - a competition to collect the first Sooty Tern egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui and swim back to Rapa Nui. The winner had absolute rights over the island for the year.

But by the time of the last Birdman race, in 1878, the Rapanui population was in steep decline. One thousand islanders were kidnapped to work in South America as slaves, many died from disease and some Rapanui fled to other islands.

A commercial company turned Rapa Nui into a sheep run and the Rapanui were forced to stay on their own settlement of Hanga Roa. After the island became part of Chile, in 1888, the population slowly began to recover.

Visitors to Manchester have the chance to discover more about this fascinating culture and explore the latest excavations that reveal yet more about their spiritual beliefs. Perhaps best of all, there is even a chance to lay eyes on one of their mysterious statues, Moai Hava, which was taken from Rapa Nui in 1868, exhibited on loan from the British Museum.

  • You can see Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: The Statues from Easter Island at Manchester Museum from April 2 – September 6 2015.
a photo of carved figures outlined by a yellow sunset
The Maoi Heads of Easter Island at sunset© Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC

a photo of statues on a island with blue sky and sea beyond
The Maoi Heads of Easter Island on a ceremonial platform© Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC

a photo of six carved figures on a stone platform in front of a beach
Maoi Heads with Pukao© Photo Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC

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