A Massive Undertaking: Examining Stone Money in Its Archaeological Context. (News & Notes)

By Fitzpatrick, Scott M. | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Massive Undertaking: Examining Stone Money in Its Archaeological Context. (News & Notes)

Fitzpatrick, Scott M., Antiquity

In archaeological research the examination of exchange networks helps to explain the interaction between different cultures and the social, political, and technological transformations that took place through time. One of the most remarkable but least understood examples of exchange in Oceania occurred in the Western Caroline Islands of Micronesia. As early as perhaps 600 years ago, Yapese Islanders began traveling to the Palauan archipelago to quarry their famous stone `money' from the abundant limestone deposits in the Rock Islands (FIGURE 1). The Yapese gained access to these quarries by providing corvee labour and exchanging goods or foodstuffs with Palauan clans or villages.


Stone money disks were usually carved into a circular or ovoid shape using shell tools, perforated with a hole in the centre, and brought back to Yap over 400 km away by raft or canoe. What is most astonishing is that these disks were often carved from deposits found deep within an island's jagged karst interior and transported out using methods as yet unknown. Several unfinished or broken pieces have been found in areas of dense jungle and along steep cliff sides of razor-sharp coral rock (FIGURE 2).


This exchange system continued well into the 1800s but was dramatically transformed as metal tools were introduced and entrepreneurial European traders began providing transport of quarry workers and stone money to and from Palau on larger ships. Although disks carved after contact are larger (some in excess of 4 m wide and weighing over 9 metric tons) and were delivered to Yap in higher quantities, they are typically worth less because of the decrease in risk and ease of production. The disks themselves are still used in Yap today for various social exchanges, their worth dependent on the size, shape, quality of stone and history behind each particular piece.

Archaeological research that began in 1998 is concerned with investigating several quarries to determine when stone money production was taking place, the processes involved in carving and transporting these disks, and how traditional Pacific Island cultures were influenced by Europeans. Intensive survey of Omis Cave, Metuker ra Bisech, Chelechol ra Orrak and Upper Orrak have revealed 15 stone money disks in various stages of production (FIGURE 3). Numerous architectural features were recorded including stone docks, pathways, alignments, platforms and retaining walls to aid in moving stone money from the interior parts of Rock Islands down to the sea or in negotiating disks from the quarries to watercraft. Artefacts recovered from quarry episodes and earlier Palauan deposits include shell tools and ornaments, a stone adze, drilled turtle and fish bone, hundreds of pottery sherds and three metal tools, the first such artefacts found in association with quarry deposits (FIGURE 4).

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A Massive Undertaking: Examining Stone Money in Its Archaeological Context. (News & Notes)


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