Meeting report: Amongst Stone Giants: Easter Island Explored

7 December 2012
James Williams Lecture
Lionel Masters

Lionel Masters, well-known and very popular in Dumfries and Galloway as an archaeologist and Glasgow University extra-mural lecturer, was invited to give the James Williams Memorial Lecture to Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society in December.

Lionel replied: "I am delighted and honoured to accept, particularly as after almost 50 years I'm finally retiring from University teaching this year. It is very fitting that I shall round things off where I started — in Dumfries."

He continued: "As to subject, I've recently been working on Polynesian prehistory, so Amongst Stone Giants, Easter Island Explored would be the title and although it might not seem to have anything in common with Jimmy's interests, there is the common theme of trade in stone (British Neolithic polished stone axes/Polynesian stone adzes) and the use of various types of volcanic rock. This would fit in with Jimmy's geological interests."

Since 2007 Lionel's interest in distant Polynesia has grown, especially in Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), at the eastern end of the Polynesian triangle, first discovered in 1722 on Easter Sunday — hence the name. It measures 14×13×12 miles and is "just like Arran with sunshine!" Its isolated location is 2000 miles from Chile and a further 2000 miles away from Pitcairn Island beyond. The only settlement, Hanga Riva, has 4 thousand inhabitants.

Thor Heyerdahl's theory that the area was colonised from South America is wrong. It used to be thought to have taken place about 700 years ago: radiocarbon dating has proved that it was about 1200 years ago. It is now recognised that there was a slow and steady drift of colonisation from west to east. The people of the area were brilliant navigators in their double-hulled canoes in the days before the compass and the chronometer. The chances of striking the miniscule pockets of land by seafarers in the great Pacific Ocean would seem to be slim in those long-ago times.

The garments of the people were made of bark cloth. Feathers and fish hooks are the basic archaeology of the region. Metal products came only in time from the New World. Six-inch nails proved to have appeal.

There are over 70 volcanoes in the area. Three in particular are worthy of mention: Poike and Rano Kau are about 1 million years old and Terebaka is about 700,000 years old.

The statues with the characteristic elongated ear lobes were created in the period up to 1600. The rock to make them comes from the small but beautifully-formed Rano Raraku volcano. The volcanic rock is hard on the surface but relatively easy to work with a pick made of hard rock (basalt). There are about 330 statues all round the volcano. They are either still attached to the rock or on the outer fringe.

The Pukao is the head with its empty eye sockets and top-knot of red skoria; the Moai is the body, the largest of which is over 30 feet high and if it were to be extracted would weigh about 80 tons; legs are very rare. Generally a large section is below ground in pits and therefore not visible, a factor which has preserved fine detail. The rock is yellow but when exposed turns grey in about 50 years. It seems that in order to move the statue to its platform (the Ahu) a rocking from side to side was employed.

Only about one fifth of the sites have been recorded. Reconstruction began after 1956. The largest completely reconstructed site is Ahu tongariki, where all the tourists are taken. The Japanese brought in the first mobile crane to replace the statues, which all look inland and have their backs to the sea. One huge statue has eyes of red skoria like the top-knot and black obsidian disks as pupils. The characteristic of redness for the eyes imbues the statue with Manu, sacred power.

Sheila Fraser delivered an appreciative vote of thanks, not only for this memorable lecture, delivered with customary enthusiasm, but also for the years of dedication to advancing knowledge here in the South West. With regret we say farewell to a 'Master'.