Midden Madness and Other Tales from a Summer Spent at Bishop Museum


Guest blog by Marty Kooistra, Archaeology Collections Summer Intern

Reflecting upon my summer as an Anthropology Collections Intern for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, I’m left with countless memories I will cherish for a lifetime. As an intern, I enjoyed a variety of responsibilities, such as: scanning reports, sorting midden, cataloging fishhooks, and re-housing artifacts (coral and urchin abraders). Some assignments were punishing, for example sorting midden. This is a task we’d dubbed “midden madness” for obvious reasons. Imagine a large zip-block bag full of different colored sand. Now imagine sorting these sand grains into piles by color and you will begin to understand the madness. Our midden piles consisted of urchin, shell, fire cracked rock, fish bones, fish scales, coral, and charcoal, but it’s essentially the same concept. After a week, however, you develop a sense of camaraderie among fellow interns and sorting midden becomes entertaining – even therapeutic, as some would later describe it. In fact, I wish I were sorting midden right now!

During my first few weeks as an intern, I was tasked with reassigning fishhooks into the Hawaii Archaeological Survey (HAS) database. Bishop archaeologists, Dr. Emory and Dr. Sinoto, excavated these fishhooks between 1953-1959 at South Point (Ka Lae) located on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. My work involved swapping out the old HAS identification numbers and assigning new HAS identification numbers, along with noting the material used to construct each fishhooks – either invertebrate (shell) or vertebrate (bone). Additionally each fishhook was assigned a field catalog numbers during excavation, a second identity of sorts, this number was also recorded. For example the numbers on the fishhook in the second photo are H1-G7-24. H1 is the site designation, G7 the excavation unit, and this particular fishhook was the 24th artifact from that unit. Once you get a rhythm going it’s quite fun.

Occasionally, disintegrating tags or microscopic writing make deciphering these numbers a challenge. The first number, H1, is predictable, since all fishhooks were from South Point, but it’s sometimes hard to read the other two numbers. Fortunately, each fishhook was drawn to scale and cataloged meticulously in one of several reference binders. For example, I came across a fishhook with two numbers: H1-G13-1 and H1-H12-19, so I looked these numbers up in the reference binder. Interestingly, this particular hook was broken at the time of deposition. If you look at the dates, one drawing is from 8/2/1954 and the other is from 3/5/1955. So the pieces were excavated a year apart, from different excavation units, and later pieced together. The ability to review 60-year-old notes, and uncover the journey of each particular fishhook was quite amazing. For a split second, I was a time traveler and instantly reminded why I chose to pursue a career as an archaeologist.

During our last week, Mara invited us to meet the eminent authority on Polynesian fishhooks, Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto. Two fellow interns and I packed into Sinoto’s office, where he regaled us with tales of his journey to Hawai‘i, subsequent “kidnapping” by Dr. Emory, and early career as an archaeologist. One such tale involved walking along the shores of the Marquesas Islands and discovering a sand dune covered with discarded fishhooks. The excitement in Sinoto’s voice as he pulled out old photos of the site, and relived this day with us is something I will always cherish. After six weeks, saying goodbye to Bishop Museum, the wonderful staff, and my fellow interns was probably the hardest part, but our paths will cross again.

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Artifacts from the House of Taga

mas-04799_reduced Guest blog by Helen Alderson, visiting researcher

As mentioned in my first blog, Micronesia is home to some impressive monumental structures. One of these is the House of Taga, on the island Tinian in the Marianas. The House of Taga’s impressive stone columns are inspiring, but what lies beneath them tells a story about cultural change over time, as Marcian Pellett discovered in 1958 (Pellett and Spoehr 1961).

The House of Taga collection at Bishop Museum holds a variety of different pottery sherds, and a lesser amount of associated ornaments such as shell beads. Interestingly, the elaborate “Marianas Red” pottery was found at an older stratigraphic context that the “Marianas Plain” pottery which was found in the same context as the Latte columns that form the foundation of this monumental structure (Pellett and Spoehr 1961:322). Why did pottery become simpler over time? To me, this may ring of a change in investment in labor, from the creation of elaborate pots to the construction of monumental architecture. However, in other parts of Micronesia, different researchers have different theories as to why pottery became plainer, and in many cases disappeared altogether. On Pohnpei, for example, Rainbird (1999) suggests that pottery disappears because its social meaning (i.e. the remembrance of ancestors) was transferred into tombs.

I find the elaborate patterns of the Marianas red ware truly striking. They include delicate shell inlay, and bright red slip. It is exciting to be able to find and match the intricate designs on some of the sherds with those drawn by Pellett and Spoehr (1961), which you may also wish to do using the photos provided. Their article can be found here: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_70_1961/Volume_70,_No._3/Marianas_archaeology,_by_Marcian_Pellett,_p_321-325/p1

Pellett, M. & Spoehr, A. (1961). Marianas archaeology: Report on an excavation on Tinian. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 70(3): 321-325.

Rainbird, P. (1999). Entangled biographies: western Pacific ceramics and the tombs of Pohnpei. World archaeology, 31(2): 214-224.

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Janet Davidson and Nukuoro

mas-00217 Guest blog by Helen Alderson, visiting researcher

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that talked about Nukuoro, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia. While the museum collections here can tell us a lot about how cultures operated in the past, they can also tell us about the researchers who amassed them. The collection of Nukuoro artifacts lends a fascinating insight into the interests and motivations of Dr. Janet M. Davidson, who travelled to the remote atoll while she was in her early 20s in 1965.

In Pacific Island archaeology, we are fortunate to have many scholars who have dedicated their careers to increasing understanding of our unique heritage. Like many others, Dr. Davidson is an inspiring Pacific Island archaeologist who has left a legacy of research at Bishop Museum. She has long been my role model, as a prominent female New Zealand archaeologist, and I was fortunate to see her awarded the Roger C. Green Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand this year in  June.

Davidson championed the idea of a more holistic archaeology in the Pacific. Frustrated at the lack of research on shell artifacts during a time in which lithics and ceramics were treated with a greater preference, she collected and analysed hundreds of shell fishhooks, coconut scrapers and adzes. She illustrated that shell artifacts are pivotal to studies of change over time on atolls, not only in material culture, but in the implications they have for understanding cultural interaction and integration (Davidson 1968:59). In my own research on volcanic high islands in Micronesia, I have found that monumental architecture is often treated with interest and preference over portable material culture. Davidson’s work serves as a reminder to us all that all material culture is relevant to societies’ development.  mas-00659

In another line that is still relevant today, Davidson also called for a greater focus on studying the geographic region Micronesia, particularly Eastern Micronesia (Davidson 1968:51). In particular, she stressed the importance of building a comparative collection database of artifacts (Davidson 1968:59, 63). In her Nukuoro collection, there is a representation of a variety of different artifacts, including ornaments, adzes, and fishhooks.

Finally, Davidson warned against stereotyping a culture based on its linguistic or physical attributes. Nukuoro is linguistically Polynesian, and has many Polynesian societal qualities. Nevertheless, the society has also taken on a variety of other material culture traits, particularly from neighbouring Micronesian islands (Davidson 1968:60-61).  For example, within the Nukuoro collections here at Bishop Museum, a distinctive sliced Tridacna shell adze type is prominent. This type is not widespread in Polynesia, but is found in Micronesia and Melanesia (Davidson 1968:61). In the collections here, I have seen similar adzes from Pohnpei – a volcanic high island in Micronesia, and even Vanuatu, Melanesia. Davidson’s collections and research remind us to think of Oceania as an interacting sea of cultures, who interacted and innovated with each other.

See also: Davidson, J. M. (1968). Nukuoro: archaeology on a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia. Prehistoric culture in Oceania, 51-66.

For an overview of Dr Davidson’s contribution to Pacific archaeology, see Kevin Jones’ summary for the NZAA: http://www.nzarchaeology.org/citations/Janet%20Davidson%20Citation.pdf

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Inventorying the Micronesian Archaeology Collections

photo-1 Guest blog by Helen Alderson, visiting researcher

I am currently here in the lab working on a project that focuses on the Micronesian archaeological collections at Bishop Museum. Micronesia is one of three commonly-used terms to divide Oceania geographically, the others being Polynesia and Melanesia. While Micronesia covers a stretch of ocean greater than the size of the continental U.S., it does not receive as much archaeological attention as Polynesia and Melanesia. Despite this, Micronesia is well-known within archaeological circles for its impressive monumental structures, such as the vast ceremonial, administrative and mortuary complexes Nan Madol on Pohnpei and Lelu on Kosrae, the sculptured hills of Babeldaob in Palau, and the stone columns left from the latte buildings of the Marianas. It also is home to the often huge rai (colloquially known as “stone money”) on Yap, which capture the imagination as massive exchange valuables.

While monumentality is both inspiring and can tell us much about the past, collections of Micronesian archaeological artifacts are equally as valuable. Bishop Museum holds thousands of Micronesian items. Currently, with the guidance of Dr. Mara Mulrooney, I am creating an inventory to make these items more accessible for future research. I have inventoried 2200 artifacts so far, most of which are shell adzes, ornaments, fishhooks and fishhook blanks from Nukuoro, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia, currently located within the Federated States of Micronesia.

Material culture from Nukuoro is intrinsically interesting, as although it is positioned within our current geographic borders of Micronesia, it was populated by people of Polynesian descent in ancient times. As such, the artifacts that I have been inventorying look Polynesian, with some subtle differences. The range of items will make great future projects for students or scholars interested in deconstructing concepts of both geographic and cultural boundaries, and how they are reflected in material culture.

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