Marquesan Monumental Architecture: Blurred Boundaries in the Distinction between Religious and Residential Sites

By Rolett, Barry V. | Archaeology in Oceania, July 2010 | Go to article overview
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Marquesan Monumental Architecture: Blurred Boundaries in the Distinction between Religious and Residential Sites

Rolett, Barry V., Archaeology in Oceania


Structurally similar but functionally different religious and residential monumental architecture sites pose a central problem in archaeologically-based investigations of Marquesan chiefdoms. This paper examines the problem by identifying and discussing cultural and environmental traits useful for distinguishing among Marquesan religious and residential sites. The problem is further explored through a case study from Vaitahu Valley on Tahuata in the southern Marquesas. The case study site, Mataie'e, embodies certain distinguishing characteristics of religious sites within a unique layout that defies attempts at simple classification. A single radiocarbon date from limited excavations dates construction of the site to either shortly before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1775 or more likely to the early to mid-nineteenth century historic era.

Keywords: archaeology; monumental architecture; religious sites; Marquesas Islands


Early historic era chiefdoms of the Marquesas Islands were marked by a blurred boundary between the sacred and secular elements of society (Thomas 1990). In contrast to more typical Polynesian chiefdoms such as those of the Society Islands, achieved status was comparatively important in the Marquesas while the role of ascribed status based on genealogy was of diminished significance. By the time of European contact, Marquesan chiefs (haka'iki) had lost the right to claim "first fruits", a share of each harvest that in most Polynesian chiefdoms was a hereditary privilege and a major source of power. Spiritual priests (taua) and warriors (toa) gained status, apparently at the expense of chiefs, but their prestige and power was largely achieved rather than ascribed. Thomas (1990) uses the ethnohistoric literature to describe in detail the social aspects of competition among chiefs, priests, and warriors. However, efforts to understand this dialectic from an archaeological perspective are still in the early stages, with perhaps the most notable study to date on this subject being that by Kirch (1991).

A potentially rewarding archaeologically-based approach for investigating competition among chiefs and other individuals vying for power is to examine aspects of Marquesan monumental architecture. This is because most residential, as well as religious sites consisted of structures placed on raised stone platforms (paepae). At the time of European contact it was clear that the overall size of the paepae, as well as the size of the individual boulders used in the main retaining wall were viewed as a reflection of social status. In some cases, especially in the northern Marquesas, quarried slabs of red or yellow volcanic tuff (ke'etu) were added as an embellishment, usually as facing stones separating the back of the platform from the front. This embellishment, like the use of large boulders in the main retaining wall, was also associated with high social status. Thus a quantitative and qualitative comparison of paepae within the territory of a specific chiefdom should be revealing in terms of the perceived social status of its high-ranking leaders. Yet since individual leaders actively competed for power, differences in the monumentality and embellishment of paepae structures likely reflect social competition as well as actual status.

There is one primary obstacle that hinders implementation of this archaeologically-based approach for investigating social relations and competition among the leaders of Marquesan chiefdoms. The problem is how to distinguish residential paepae of the secular leaders (e.g. haka'iki and toa) from structures linked with religious sites, especially meae, which were the realm of the tau'a. In most of central east Polynesia, the principal religious sites consist of walled enclosures and a stepped altar (ahu). Such sites are typified by the marae complexes of the Society Islands (Emory 1933, Sinoto 1996). Marquesan religious architecture is the exception to this general pattern.

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Marquesan Monumental Architecture: Blurred Boundaries in the Distinction between Religious and Residential Sites


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