Exploring Prehistory on the Sepik Coast of Papua New Guinea

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Exploring Prehistory on the Sepik Coast of Papua New Guinea Edited by John Edward Terrell and Esther M. Scheellter Fieldiana Anthropology (New Series) 42, 2011. Held Museum of Natural History, Illinois. ISSN 0071-4739 303 pages. $US85.

Exploring Prehistory on the Sepik Coast of Papua New Guinea is a detailed report of Terrell and Schechter's 1990 and 1993-94 museum and field research along the north coast of mainland Papua New Guinea (PNG). The fieldwork extended along 350km of coastline, and aimed to investigate four major questions: 1) to what degree were coastal communities along this coastline in contact with each other in the past? 2) To what degree were cultural practices in each community distinctive? 3) How isolated was the north coast of mainland PNG from broader cultural developments elsewhere in the western Pacific? 4) To what degree can the Field Museum of Natural History's ethnographic collection for this region be informed by, and inform, contemporary anthropological research? Ceramics form a focus of this research, although other materials are also covered.

The volume is divided into 15 chapters (with eight data-rich Appendices) preceded by a brief Foreword. Chapter 1 (Research Issues, by Terrell) problematises the archaeology of the north coast in broader geographical perspective to set up the volume's (and project's) aims. Chapter 2 (Language, Ethnicity, and Material Culture on the Sepik Coast, by Terrell) explores the Field Museum's ethnographic collections, undertaking computer-aided social network analysis by which notions of community isolation can be investigated for the north coast. Chapter 3 (Context and Relevance, by Terrell, Pope and Golf) gives details of the north coast's geographical and palaeoenvironmental setting as a way of locating human adaptations, focusing on 'inherited friendships' ('trade partnerships') and the 'transgenerational management of resources' as local and regional adaptations to a challenging environment. Chapter 4 (History of Investigations, by Terrell) maps the history of research in this region, incorporating social anthropology and, to a greater extent, archaeology and museum collecting. Chapter 5 (Archaeological Surveys, by Terrell) presents the results of field surveys undertaken between the Serra Hills and Wewak (west and east of Aitape respectively) by the authors in 1993 and 1994. Chapter 6 (Archaeological Excavations, by Terrell) presents the results of six excavations (at sites 'Sumalo Hill'; 'Mt Mario'; 'NGRP16'; 'NGRP22'; 'NGRP23'; 'NGRP46') undertaken in the Aitape area of the Sepik coast and Tumleo Island in 1996. These represent the first archaeological excavations in the broader region. Chapter 7 (Prehistoric Pottery Wares in the Aitape Area, by Terrell and Schechter) explores decorations on the excavated ceramics through their 'attributes' (= particular decorative conventions), 'attribute themes' (= associations of various attributes) and 'motifs' (= the patterned positioning of attribute themes on a vessel surface, such as banding along a particular part of a pot). Four distinct, ceramic wares of different ages are identified through computer-aided seriation: in increasing age, Wain, Aiser, Sumalo and Nyapin wares. These are said to represent some 1500 to 2000 years of ceramics, and to belong to 'a single, distinct, and stylistically evolving local ceramic tradition'. Chapter 8 (Historic and Modern Pottery in the Aitape Area, by Schechter) explores vessel shapes from the excavated ceramics, and compares these with ethnographic pots held by the Field Museum of Natural History. Four types are identified, two of which--platters, and bowls with carinations--only occur in the archaeological assemblages. The authors also explore vessel use and manufacturing techniques. Chapter 9 (Wooden Platters and Bowls in the Ethnographic Collections, by Terrell) compares ethnographic ceramic and wooden platters held by the Field Museum of Natural History with Lapita wares from further to the east, and concludes that decorations found on the ethnographic platters represent continuities from earlier Lapita symbolic systems dating back at least 3300 years (see also Terrell and Schechter 2007 for a more detailed exploration of this idea). …