Temple Sites in Kahikinui, Maui, Hawaiian Islands: Their Orientations Decoded

By Kirch, Patrick V. | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Temple Sites in Kahikinui, Maui, Hawaiian Islands: Their Orientations Decoded


Kirch, Patrick V., Antiquity


Introduction

With a few exceptions, mostly involving Easter Island (e.g. Ferdon 1961; Lee & Liller 1987; Liller 1989), archaeologists of Polynesia have largely ignored or avoided the subject of archaeoastronomy, a somewhat surprising situation considering that there is an abundance of ethnohistoric and ethnographic data regarding indigenous Polynesian and Oceanic knowledge systems bearing on astronomy, calendrics and navigation (e.g. Collocott 1922; Handy 1927; Henry 1928; Beaglehole & Beaglehole 1938; Makemson 1941; Hiroa 1932, 1938; Akerblom 1968; Valeri 1985). Over the past two decades, the experimental voyages of the double-hulled canoe Hokule'a, in particular, have brought renewed attention to Polynesian non-instrumental navigational abilities, which made extensive use of star knowledge (Finney 1994). In a recent synthesis of ancestral Polynesian culture, Kirch and Green (2001: 260-76) reconstruct key aspects of Polynesian time reckoning and the ancient ritual cycle. They conclude that all Polynesian cultures possessed:

* an annual seasonal cycle which divided the year into two parrs (Proto-Polynesian taqu), originally based on a wet-dry seasonality and the yam cultivation cycle;

* a sidereal cycle based on observations of the acronychal and heliacal rising of the star-cluster Pleiades (named Mataliki in Proto-Polynesian), which determined the transitions between seasons;

* an annual lunar (synodic) calendar of 13 months, which was keyed to the agricultural cycle; and

* a system of intercalation for keeping the lunar calendar synchronized with the solar year, based typically on the observation of Pleiades risings, but in some societies (especially Mangareva and Hawai'i) also on observation of solstice positions.

In Polynesian societies, astronomical and calendrical knowledge was the special purview of priests (and priest-navigators), who were responsible for making observations of key phenomena and for declaring when a particular season would end or commence. In Hawai'i, for example, the priests (kahuna) of the Lono cult closely awaited the first appearance of the Pleiades in the evening sky just after sunset towards the middle of November, which then marked the commencement of the Makahiki period of tribute collections and harvest celebrations (Handy & Handy 1972; Sahlins 1995; Valeri 1985). Similarly, the cult of the god Kane was closely associated with observation of the rising sun (Handy 1927; Handy & Handy 1972). Given that such priests were charged with regular observation of astronomical phenomena, it is not unreasonable to expect that the temples from which priests carried out their esoteric activities might also reflect this interest in astronomical phenomena, particularly in the positioning and orientation of temples.

Hawaiian temple orientations: prevailing perspectives

The pioneering archaeologist John F. G. Stokes, who carried out the first systematic and detailed architectural study of temples (heiau) on the islands of Hawai'i and Moloka'i in 1906-1909, wrote "I could find no evidence in the foundations of orientation to cardinal points. It is true that some of them did lie almost true north-south or east-west, but this was because the situation required it" (Stokes 1991:36). Rather, Stokes concluded that the orientation of heiau platforms was controlled by local topographic and environmental conditions (1991:35). Stokes' opinion was reaffirmed by later archaeologists. Wendell C. Bennett, who studied the heiau of Kaua'i, wrote that "true orientation to the points of the compass was seldom, if ever, considered, and was of little importance. The topography usually determined the orientation, the heiaus commonly facing the sea or valley" (1931:35; Emory 1924:62). For nearly a century, this has been the prevailing archaeological view. For only two cases, the isolated Ahu a 'Umi heiau on Hawai'i, and a group of heiau on Kaua'i, have proposals been advanced for orientations with astronomical significance (Da Silva & Johnson 1982; Ruggles 1999). …

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