1958 Excavations at Nu‘alolo Kai

Posted by on February 27, 2012

Dr. Sinoto discussing his experiences excavating at Nu‘alolo Kai, Kaua‘i.

After being asked to put together some information for an upcoming presentation on Nu‘alolo Kai, one of the early excavations sponsored by the Bishop Museum’s Anthropology Department, I was able to spend some time looking into the department’s archives and collections from the site. Nu‘alolo Kai is located in a protected inlet along the Na Pali Coast of Kaua‘i. The area focused on by Bishop Museum archaeologists is one part of a complex of archaeological sites within this inlet. This particular location is known as Site 196. Because Site 196 is next to a large cliff, early excavators encountered excellent preservation conditions, keeping even such perishable objects as wood and textiles from completely decomposing in the ground. Buried structure floors and artifacts, including fishhooks and coral files, were found as deep as 6 feet (2 meters) below the surface. Radiocarbon dates later showed that people first began to live at the site between A.D. 1300 and 1500. The presence of historic artifacts, such as glass beads and metal jewelry, told archaeologists that the site was still inhabited even after Europeans arrived in the Hawaiian Islands.

Excavations at Nu‘alolo Kai, which were led by renowned Pacific archaeologist and anthropologist Dr. Kenneth Emory, were conducted by archaeologists from the Bishop Museum in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1964. Yosi Sinoto, fresh from his first Hawaiian excavations at South Point on the Big Island, was present at Nu‘alolo Kai in 1958, as shown by some of the photos that we were able to dig up out of the archives.

I recently sat down with Dr. Sinoto, who has now been with the Bishop Museum for a remarkable 54 years, to ask him about his experiences at Nu‘alolo Kai in 1958. Dr. Sinoto remembers arriving at the site, which cannot be reached on land, by boat. Dr. Emory would often arrive by helicopter. Dr. Sinoto remembers that, at one point, turbulent waves prevented the boat from reaching the camp, and supplies were brought in by plane instead. During the week he spent at Nu‘alolo Kai, excavations were focused on the feature K3, a structure where most of the effort at Nu‘alolo Kai over the years was directed. In addition to Dr. Emory, other folks that Dr. Sinoto identified in the 1958 photos included co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society Ben Finney and zoologist and marine shell expert E. Alison Kay.

Archaeological work at Nu‘alolo Kai occurred during a period in which excavation techniques were being refined and systematized. Although field methods in archaeology have become increasingly more precise over the last 50 years since the site was excavated, work at Nu‘alolo Kai aided archaeologists substantially in understanding the history of the Hawaiian Islands. Dr. Sinoto used the substantial collection of fishhooks from the site, along with fishhooks from the South Point site, to expand on his collaborative work with Kenneth Emory and William Bonk to show how Hawaiian fishhook styles changed over time. More recent analysis of the Nu‘alolo Kai material by University of Hawai‘i archaeologists has continued to broaden archaeologists’ understanding of the types of fishhooks and fishhook-making tools used at the site.

Bishop Museum staff are currently digitizing inventory records for artifacts from the Nu‘alolo Kai collection. These records will soon be added to the Hawaiian Archaeological Survey (HAS) database, which will enable information about archaeological finds from the site to be accessed online. Nu‘alolo Kai itself remains under the care of the State of Hawai‘i Division of State Parks, who, with the help of the Na Pali Coast ‘Ohana, are making sure that this important archaeological site remains protected from natural and human threats. With their help, Nu‘alolo Kai will remain a valuable cultural resource for future generations.

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