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Unearthing the road to Easter Island’s statues

Statues on Easter Island Statues on Easter Island Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC
14 Jan
A new survey at the island’s volcanic quarry sheds further light on ancient statues

Easter Island’s ancient statues have long mystified visitors to the island. New fieldwork at the island’s ancient volcanic quarry, Puna Pau, has uncovered the road stonemasons trod with the statue’s distinctive red topknots, known as pukao.

An international team with a significant UK involvement made the finds. ‘Their fieldwork involved carrying out a geophysical survey within the quarry at Puna Pau, including an electromagnetic and fluxgate magnetometer survey,’ says Bryan Sitch, deputy head of collections at Manchester Museum, which will host an exhibition on the finds, Making Monuments on Rapa Nui, from this April. Rapa Nui is the name for Easter Island in the indigenous language.

‘These techniques involve the detection of residual magnetism within the ground, which is affected by activities that have taken place in that location in the past,’ says Sitch.

Where the ground has been disturbed or trampled a new reading is created that can be measured and the results plotted on graphs. ‘Fieldwork over the last few years has revealed the presence of an ara pukao, or road or trackway, leading out of the quarry, along which the pukao or topknots travelled en route to platforms or ahu on which the stone statues were erected,’ adds Sitch.

moai head Adam StanfordAdam Stanford © Aerial-Cam Ltd for RNLOC

An active mythology has sprung up around the island’s statues. ‘One myth is that some of the statues and topknots found on or close to roads or trackways were abandoned in transit when the supply of wood ran out,’ says Sitch. The work at Puna Pau quarry suggests that statues and pukao found on their own alongside tracks were erected there intentionally and that they reflect the islanders’ spiritual beliefs.

‘Stone tools scattered around the quarry at Rano Raraku and seemingly abandoned all of a sudden have also been used as evidence of a mysterious disaster that overwhelmed the workmen,’ he adds. Recent thinking about the islanders  suggests that the tools were treated as potentially spiritually dangerous or sacred objects that could not be safely removed from the quarry, according to Sitch.

A model of the Puna Pau quarry in the Making Monuments exhibition, complete with eyes carved into the rock face,  will show how the islanders thought of the rock as a living entity.

The exhibition will also address arguments over what caused depopulation on Easter Island. ‘The seeming poverty of the islanders and the lack of trees when seen alongside impressive statues suggested to the first European visitors that there had been a catastrophe at an earlier date. This idea has been developed in recent years for a more environmentally aware audience,’ says Sitch.

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