Monumentality and the Development of the Tongan Maritime Chiefdom

By Clark, Geoffrey; Burley, David et al. | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Monumentality and the Development of the Tongan Maritime Chiefdom

Clark, Geoffrey, Burley, David, Murray, Tim, Antiquity

On Tongatapu the central place of the rising kingdom of Tonga developed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries AD. Marked out as a monumental area with a rock-cut water-carrying ditch, it soon developed as the site of a sequence of megalithic tombs, in parallel with the documented expansion of the maritime chiefdom. The results of investigations into these structures were achieved with minimum intervention and disturbance on the ground, since the place remains sacred and in use.

Keywords: Tonga, Neolithic, Megalithic, fifteenth century AD, chiefdom, kingdom, mortuary practice, princely burial


The kingdom of Tonga incorporates 169 islands spread over a linear distance of 800km along the western edge of the Polynesian triangle (Figure 1). Despite a total land area of only 700[km.sup.2], and an estimated late-prehistoric population of 30 000-40 000 people (Green 1973; Burley 2007), Tonga became the centre for a complex maritime chiefdom during the second millennium AD (Aswani & Graves 1989; Sand 1999; Petersen 2000; Neich 2006). Tongan hegemony and influence extended widely throughout the central Pacific, and the chiefdom's political integration is rivalled in complexity only by the Hawaiian chiefdom of the historic era (Kirch 1990).

Lapaha was the central place of the chiefdom during the height of its influence. It was critically positioned on the Fanga 'Uta lagoon on the southern island of Tongatapu (Sacred Tonga) (Figure 2). The chiefdom was headed by the paramount Tu'i Tonga (Lord of Tonga), who, along with other senior lineages, was buried in massive stone-faced tombs known as langi, meaning sky or heaven (Churchward 1959: 282). The tombs of the paramount chiefs, and other built structures at Lapaha, have long been recognised as central to tracing the development of the complex and highly stratified Polynesian society (Gifford 1929: 3-4; Kirch 1984; 1990; Spennemann 1989a & b).

In this paper we present the first archaeological data for the large-scale prehistoric constructions at Lapaha, and use it to investigate the growth of the centralised and complex chiefdom. The monumental architecture sequence at Lapaha suggests an initial focus on social integration from an emphasis on maritime accessibility and the creation of a large ceremonial area outlined by a limestone-cut waterway. After AD 1450 there was a substantial increase in the sacredness of chiefs as manifested by the construction of large tiered burial structures. The sequence of monumental architecture suggests that chiefs utilised distinct leadership strategies during the development and expansion of the maritime chiefdom.



Monumental structures

The stone-faced tombs at Lapaha were first mapped in 1827 during Dumont d'Urville's visit to Tonga (Maurat 1833), with subsequent mapping and traditional information collected by missionaries, historians and archaeologists (Baker n.d.; Gifford 1929; McKern 1929; Bott 1982; Spennemann 1989a). As part of the Bishop Museum's Bayard-Dominick expedition to Tonga in 1920/21, McKern (1929) provided the first comprehensive map of the site as well as data for individual tombs and other features, the latter including an enclosing ditch bounded by a former shoreline.

In 2006 and 2007, the largest tombs were cleared of dense vegetation by Geoffrey Clark and a team from Lapaha village, and were mapped using laser scanning, optical theodolite and GPS. We also measured individual stones incorporated in the facing walls and, for the nine largest tombs, initiated a remote sensing project seeking the locations of burial vaults or interment pits. The clearing project and additional survey revealed 11 new structures as well as cases of landscape alteration that were previously missed. Our updated map of Lapaha and its features is shown in Figure 3.

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