Lapita Period Modelled Ceramic Face from New Caledonia

By Noury, Arnaud | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Lapita Period Modelled Ceramic Face from New Caledonia

Noury, Arnaud, Archaeology in Oceania


I report here a new Lapita period clay modelled face from the Lapita (WKO013A) site. This is similar to the seven Lapita period faces already known. I discuss the role that such faces could have played in Lapita culture and suggest they could have been made by distinct groups.

Keywords: Lapita, ceramic face


Only seven clay modelled faces made by Lapita potters are known, very few compared to the thousands of decorated sherds in Near and Remote Oceania. Although none have been found actually on a pot, it is plausible that these faces constituted a significant part of the Lapita decorative system (Torrence and White 2001:135). Birds were also modelled, one being found at Nenumbo (RF2) (Donovan 1973 Fig 8) and four on the rim of a complete pot at Teouma (Bedford pers. comm.). Green (1979) and Donovan (1973) describes a modelled buttock from the Santa Cruz group in the Solomon Islands.

This face is the property of a French collector. It is the second known from New Caledonia, the other figure being reported by Frimigacci (1981) from Koumac, also in the north of the island.

Presentation of this report is an occasion to discuss some aspects of Lapita decoration, although there are no clear answers to some of the questions, partly because the number of known faces is so small. Were these modelled faces really part of pot decoration? Are they comparable to other examples of modelling in the Lapita decorative system? Why are there so few of them? Do they exhibit a specific style or come from specific periods? A list of the seven known faces is given in Table 1.

The WKO013A face

This small face was discovered on the edge of an eroding beach slope at site WKO013A, now a shrimp farm. Its fragility suggests that it had not been exposed long or it would have disappeared entirely. However, it does not seem to have deteriorated since its discovery.

The face is approximately 38 x 34 mm (Figure 1). It is incomplete, with two well marked orbital cavities and a triangular, long, slightly curved nose. Two small circular holes in the orbits suggest the presence of eyes, which may have contained colouring matter, shell or some other addition. A third hole, less regular and damaged is located right under the nose. This may be the remainder of a nostril, similar to that on Boduna Face 1 (Torrence and White 2001 Fig 1), or simply accidental damage. A fourth hole on the face seems accidental, but might be the remains of a previous decoration. There are no signs of dentate stamping. Traces of breakage are visible on the sides of the face; these are old, but indicate the face may have been originally attached to a larger vessel.


Other Lapita modelled faces

The other New Caledonian face, from Koumac (NKM001), is longer, with deep orbital cavities and a half circle of dentate stamping on the eyes. The two New Caledonian faces are quite similar to each other and to the three from Boduna. All are relatively long, eyebrows are apparent, the nose is lengthened and nostrils may occur. Boduna Face 1 has the same dentate stamped decoration in the eyes, while Face 2 is partially surrounded by dentate stamping typical of Lapita and implying incorporation of the face in a complex ceramic decoration. Face 3 is not decorated. These figures may also be similar to one from Naigani, Fiji (Best 1981:11), also discovered by a collector. However, since there is no detailed description or illustration of this, comparisons are difficult. The final face, from Kamgot (ERA) site on Anir, New Ireland (Summerhayes 1998), is similar in size to the current one. But it is rather different in form, being rounder in shape, uses dentate stamp marking for the eyes, and has dentate lines on the forehead, down the nose and on the nostrils. Kirch (1997:142-3, iii) notes a face carved on a bone in a style similar to the Kamgot face.

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Lapita Period Modelled Ceramic Face from New Caledonia


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