An Archaeology of Salt Production in Fiji

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Introduction

Salt has played a pivotal role throughout world prehistory as an essential dietary supplement, as a commodity for specialised production and exchange and, for some societies, as the economic foundation upon which polities formed and wars were fought. Numerous researchers identify salt access as central to the development of complex societies (Connah 1991; McKillop 1995; Lovejoy 2003). Flad et al. (2005: 12618) claim its presence in all early states. Not surprisingly there is a profuse archaeological literature on salt in antiquity from diverse areas across the globe. While much of this focuses on archaeological and/or historical evidence for salt processing and its context in culture history, there has been some concern surrounding its broader role in economic and social processes. Indeed, treating salt production more generally as craft production positions it within a robust literature on craft specialisation, social aspects of production and the agency of producers, among other issues (see papers in Costin & Wright 1998; Flad & Hruby 2007a; Hirth 2009a).

The following paper provides and interprets data for solar evaporation salt extraction in Fiji, an industry previously undocumented within Oceanic prehistory. The short-lived salt-working site was excavated at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes on the island of Viti Levu and dates to the seventh century AD. We describe the site in its context, arguing for the employment of dedicated processing stations along the Sigatoka shoreline using large ceramic saltpans. These data allow us to infer specialised production, and they provide insights into its context, scale and organisation. We also explore the larger role of salt as a commodity in Fijian prehistory as well as its economic and social value as a product for exchange. The current shortage of archaeological data beyond Sigatoka makes these issues difficult to address, but scattered historical references to salt production and observations from a contemporary salt-making village at Lomawai, do provide insight into social and political processes at work, with potential implications for the archaeology of salt production in Fiji.

The archaeology of salt production at Sigatoka

The Sigatoka Sand Dunes at the mouth of the Sigatoka River on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, Fiji, provide a unique and important archaeological complex for Fijian prehistory (Figure 1). Archaeological sites, buried episodically and rapidly by blowing sand over the past 2700 years, are today reappearing as sand erodes from the dune front slope (Marshall et al. 2000). Large-scale excavations here in 1965 by Birks (1973) provided insights into depositional processes, periods of dune stability, chronology and ceramic prehistory. From within a buried palaeosol labelled 'Level 2', Birks (1973: 44-5) recovered no fewer than 17 'rough finished' shallow flat-bottomed 'dishes' with diameters of 0.5m or more. He lists a range of potential functions for the vessels, one being for the evaporation of sea water to make salt (Figure 2).

More recent surveys at Sigatoka (Marshall et al. 2000; Burley 2005) report widespread and, at times, extremely dense concentrations of these dishes eroding from the palaeosol over a distance of 1 km along the sand dune shoreline. Birk's dishes are inferred now to be salt trays and their locations to indicate solar evaporation salt processing stations, logistically positioned along the shoreline to take advantage of sun and wind exposure (Burley 2003).

The salt trays are diagnostic of the Navatu phase at Sigatoka, a mid-sequence period in Fijian prehistory, generally dated between AD 200 and 1000 with regional variations (Clark 1999: 85; Burley 2005: 342). Navatu phase ceramics, other than trays, incorporate a variety of forms, importantly including a highly distinctive, well-fired, everted rim globular jar that frequently has carved paddle impression on the body and a decorative suite potentially including applied relief, end-tool or finger nail impressions and incised patterns (Frost 1979; Marshall et al. …