AMS [sup.14]C Age Determinations of Rapanui (Easter Island) Wood Sculpture: Moai Kavakava ET 48.63 from Brussels

By Forment, F.; Huyge, D. et al. | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

AMS [sup.14]C Age Determinations of Rapanui (Easter Island) Wood Sculpture: Moai Kavakava ET 48.63 from Brussels


Forment, F., Huyge, D., Valladas, H., Antiquity


Unlike the giant monolithic sculpture on Easter Island, portable Rapanui woodcarvings apparently remained unnoticed by the Western explorers of the Southern Pacific until the second voyage of James Cook in 1774. The first wooden sculpted artefacts were brought from this expedition: amongst others, a hand with long fingers, a staff with a double human face at one end (ua) and a dance paddle with anthropomorphic features (rapa). From the description in the journals of this expedition (Forster 1777: 580-81), it can be deduced that small anthropomorphic woodcarvings (moai miro) were also seen. Several dozens of such carvings are currently preserved in collections world-wide. The finest examples, executed with great technical skill, were collected around the middle of the 19th century. It has usually been assumed that the date of collection of these objects only postdates their age of manufacturing and their ritual use by a hundred years at most, the supposed Golden Age of Rapanui woodcarving being the 18th century (see Forment 1991: 37-9).

Direct dating of ET 48.63

Moai kavakava ET 48.63 in the collection of the Brussels Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH) is definitely one of the masterpieces of Easter Island wood sculpture (see Orliac & Orliac 1995: 58-9; Meyer 1995: 581, figure 670-1). The statuette (FIGURE 1) shows a standing, slightly stooped male figure with an emaciated body, hence its Rapanui name, meaning `statue [with] ribs'. It was probably obtained in Valparaiso (Chili) between 1859 and 1871 by Leonard Schmedding, a father of the Sacred Heart order, who may have acquired it from missionaries returning from Rapa Nui. Historic evidence in this respect goes back as far as 1871. The object has been in the RMAH since 1948. The material it is made of, toromiro (Sophora toromiro), is an endemic hardwood species and one of the main traditional sculptural woods on Easter Island (Orliac 1993). The bone and obsidian, used for the eye inlays, are also of indigenous origin. Manufacturing details suggest that the statuette was made with stone technology: the neck perforation, for instance, done to accommodate a suspension string, is biconical and seems to have been done with a stone drill. Also the rippled aspect of the surface, for instance between the modelled lines of the relief on the head and under the rib cage, can be considered indicative of early technology.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In order to test the assumption of the statuette's early date, a small sample (taken from behind one of the obsidian eye inlays) was submitted for radiocarbon dating to the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement of Gif-sur-Yvette (France) in 1998. Two AMS [sup.14]C measurements were determined for this sample. The results are as follows: 490 [+ or -] 60 BP (GifA-93023) and 550 [+ or -] 50 BP (GifA-93032). Taken into account the Southern hemisphere correction (prior to calibration) of-30 years for these measurements, the calibrated ages are cal AD 1400-1490 at 68.2% probability and cal AD 1320-1350 or 1390-1450 at 68.2% probability respectively (calibration using OxCal Version 3.4; see Stuiver et al. 1998). The combined result of the two radiocarbon determinations, which are in statistical agreement, is 525 [+ or -] 40 BP, i.e. cal AD 1408-1441 at 68.2% probability or cal AD 1390-1480 at 89.4% probability. This age estimation, much older than expected, is the first of its kind for Rapanui figurative wood sculpture.

What evidence is available to indicate that this date relates not only to the raw material, but to the carving itself?.

Archaeological findings

The archaeological evidence with regard to the origin of wooden sculpture on Easter Island is scanty. Only a few items of sculpted wood have been found during excavations, among them some calcinated fragments of small decorated tablets of palm wood and toromiro, found in a post mid 17th-century context at the site of Akahanga. …

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