Showing Samoa’s Archaeological Sites

Journalist, Fuimaono Lumepa Hald, recently wrote an interesting article for the Samoa Observer about how the use of technology to study potential prehistoric sites in Samoa has led to the collection of vast amounts of archaeological information, an archaeologist has revealed.

American research archaeologist Gregory Jackmond, who is currently attached to the National University of Samoa’s Center of Samoan Studies, told the Samoa Observer that the country is home to many prehistoric sites and artifacts that remained undiscovered until recently.

He said the discovery of these sites and ancient artefacts were made possible through the use of what is called Lidar [light detection and ranging] maps over the last 6 years. “We have been able to build a database that can be used by anyone who is interested, not just university students,” he said. “We continue to build on it and one of the magic tools is the Lidar maps.”

According to the American archaeologist, Lidar map data for Samoa that has been analysed shows that the islands of Samoa are covered with archaeological features from the coast to the inland, as they can be seen where deep forest canopy has been cleared (8 kilometres or more inland in some areas).

The features visible include platforms (for houses), star mounds, terraces, walls, walled walkways, elevated walkways, large earthen ovens (umu ele’ele or umu ti), drainage channels, large pits, forts and just piles of stone.

Umu ele’ele, according to the archaeologist, were large earth ovens which were used about 500 to 1000 years ago to make sugar from ti trees. “The ti root apparently was cooked for about 10 hours in a lot of heat. The result was sugar for the people at the time,” he said

“The earthen ovens were about 10 metres across to 2 metres tall. We have only excavated about a dozen of them. But when you look at the Lidar maps, you will find that there are hundreds all across Samoa.”

Mr Jackmond said the other features of the data collected from the Lidar map, which he said people might find interesting, are the star mounds.

When first discovered by archaeologists in Samoa in the 1970s, there were only about 50 of them. However, Mr. Jackmond said the Lidar map data has shown that there are over 300 located in Samoa.

“So far the purpose for the star mounds is not yet well known. We have not excavated enough to make a deduction, but I know that it may not have been used for pigeon snaring despite the claims by the American Samoans,” he said.

“Due to lack of funding we cannot find out more about some things, like star mounds for instance.”

Making reference to the recent discovery of the foaga (grindstones) Leicester Cook, who coincidentally was his former archaeology student, Mr. Jackmond said they were surprised to see so many in one place. “We were surprised to be shown so many foaga in one place as we have only discovered one or two in some places,” he said. “But Leicester’s find is significant because it led us to believe that these could be all over Samoa too and families do not know what they are or recognise their importance.”

The American archaeologist then made reference to a program that the senior N.U.S. lecturer Dionne Fonoti is currently working on. “We also want to entice the communities to call in with their information or stories about things like the foaga and other remnants of prehistoric times so that we can add their information to our database,” he said.

Expressing confidence in the growth of archaeology students and researchers in the country, Mr. Jackmond said there appears to be an awakening, in terms of interest in the specialised field.

“Before the curriculum in the schools never really talked about the prehistory of Samoa, but now one of the teachers Tia has 40 students or so in each of his two classes. And I am sure Muhammad the other one has the same amount.”

Mr. Jackmond said that the two teachers are both doing their masters degree in archaeology. “More and more students are majoring in archaeology and that is a good sign because if Polynesia started from here, then Samoa should be the center of archaeology for the region,” he added.

Mr. Jackmond was an American Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa from 1974–76 then he did archaeological work with Dr Jennings until 1979.

He recently returned to Samoa in 2016 after his retirement as a teacher in California in the States and wanted to do something meaningful and exciting, so he returned to Samoa to help develop the archaeology department at the Center of Samoan Studies.

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