The Australian National University-National Museum of Vanuatu Archaeology Project: A Preliminary Report on the Establishment of Cultural Sequences and Rock Art Research

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Despite an intensive period of research in Vanuatu in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of basic questions regarding the archaeology of the archipelago have remained largely unexplored. The Australian National University-National Museum of Vanuatu Archaeological Project, which began in 1994, was established in an attempt to rectify some of these archaeological gaps. Research has been carried out on islands in the northern (Malakula, Maewo), central (Efate), and southern (Erromango) regions of Vanuatu. The work has concentrated on establishing ceramic sequences for the different islands and on a further understanding of the rock art, including its meaning and changes through time. The evidence collected thus far overwhelmingly indicates that the islands were initially colonized some 3000 years ago by Lapita settlers. Negative evidence thus far indicates that the islands were not settled prior to the arrival of Lapita colonizers. Dentate-stamped Lapita ceramics arrived with the initial colonizers and the ceramic traditions that followed evolved from the Lapita tradition. KEYWORDS: Vanuatu, Lapita, Mangaasi, ceramic sequences, rock art, radiocarbon dates.

THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY has a history of involvement in the archaeology of Vanuatu (Fig. 1) dating back to 1972, when Les Groube carried out a series of surveys and excavations on the islands of Erromango and Aneityum in the south and very briefly on the Banks Islands in the north (Groube 1972). Norma McArthur also carded out fieldwork on Aneityum in 1973, which contributed to her 1974 Ph.D. thesis on the island's historical demography (McArthur 1974). Rock art research was carried out on Aneityum in 1973 when Winifred Mumford, who accompanied McArthur, branched into the field (Spriggs and Mumford 1992). The above research, concentrated in the southern islands, was followed by Graeme Ward's Ph.D. fieldwork in the Banks Islands from 1973 to 1975 (Ward 1979).


Ward was followed by Matthew Spriggs, who conducted fieldwork in Vanuatu between 1978 and 1980. This led to a Ph.D. thesis concentrating on agricultural intensification and human impact on the environment of Aneityum, the southernmost inhabited island of the archipelago, as well as an ethnoarchaeological study of irrigation systems on the northern island of Maewo (Spriggs 1981). Spriggs took the then-heretical view that in certain respects prehistoric humanaccelerated erosion was beneficial, creating the large coastal plains on which much of the population of Pacific islands live (see Spriggs 1984, 1997a). As part of that project, the first pollen analysis for Vanuatu was carried out by Geoff Hope. It revealed vegetation clearance on a massive scale at about 1000 B.C. (Hope and Spriggs 1982). Large-scale erosion and subsequent valley infilling have created problems for modern archaeologists looking for early sites. On Aneityum Spriggs saw no land surface in alluvial sections older than 2000 years, meaning that at least 1000 years of history was missing. No pottery has ever been found on the island.

In 1983 Spriggs commenced a project on Erromango, assisted by Vanuatu National Museum fieldworker Jerry Taki, who had earlier worked with Les Groube. The aim was to search for evidence of human presence in southern Vanuatu earlier than 2000 B.P. The uplifted coral reef terraces on the east coast of the island were not covered by alluvial deposition, and it was hypothesized that Lapita and other early pottery sites would be found there. Locations near reef passages and freshwater sources at rivermouths were targeted, following the model of Lapita site location developed by Frimigacci (1980) for New Caledonia. The series of surveys and several excavations located the first in situ pottery recovered from southern Vanuatu. The recovered pottery is largely composed of a regional variant of the Mangaasi tradition with a smaller Lapita component, dating to around 350 B. …