The Pacific's Earliest Painted Pottery: An Added Layer of Intrigue to the Lapita Debate and Beyond

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Human colonisation of the Pacific began in the far west of Near Oceania, at least 40 000 years ago (Allen & Gosden 1991; Leavesley & Chappell 2004; Wickler & Spriggs 1988) and progressed as far as the end of the Solomons chain along a route of mostly intervisible islands. However, further movement eastward out into a region, now known as Remote Oceania, with substantially larger water gaps separating smaller islands, did not occur for more than 30 000 years. Once it did occur it appears to have been a very rapid, even explosive event which saw people colonise eastwards as far as Tonga and Samoa over a period of several hundred years (Kirch 1997; Spriggs 1997). This expansion has been associated with Austronesian language speakers who carried with them horticultural plants, domestic animals, a distinctive suite of material culture and heterarchical or ranked social organisation (Kirch & Green 2001; Green 2003). Of all the items of material culture that are excavated, it is the distinctively decorated pottery, named after the eponymous site of Lapita on the island of New Caledonia (Gifford & Shutler 1956), which has received most attention.

Although the pottery was first reported in 1909 (Meyer 1909), it was another forty years before it was recognised as having direct parallels over large areas of the Western Pacific (Avias 1950: 131) when it began to be identified as being present in a number of regions. As more sites were uncovered it was argued that this represented some sort of 'community of culture' (Golson 1961), now generally referred to as the Lapita Cultural Complex. The geographical spread of the Lapita Cultural Complex (Figure 1) has now been extended from Aitape on the north coast of New Guinea to Samoa and Tonga in the east along with numerous islands in between (Anderson et al. 2001; Kirch 1997: 55). Decades of archaeological research have established that there was a clinal west-east pattern of settlement with accompanying 'distance decay' in ceramics (Green 1978, 1979; Kirch 1997). The ceramics in the west are generally characterised by a greater variety of vessel forms than those in the east and the earliest of them (Far or Early Western) are often decorated with very fine, almost 'needle point', dentate-stamping. Although this pattern is to a certain extent influenced by chronological factors, western Lapita motifs are generally more complex and tightly spaced than those in the east (Anson 1983; Burley et al. 2002; Clark & Anderson 2001; Sand 2001; Summerhayes 2000).


Decorative techniques

There is a variety of decorative techniques utilised or applied prior to the firing of the Lapita earthenware vessels. The most distinctive and widespread is dentate-stamping (Figure 2). The comb-like tools, which have never been recovered archaeologically, comprised both a set of linear and curved varieties of varying lengths and also circular tools (Ambrose 1999). The motifs were applied following a highly structured process with certain rules governing the sequence and structure of motif production (Siorat 1990), although this varied enormously through time and space. Other decorative techniques that are associated with Lapita ceramics, which were sometimes used in combination with the dentate-stamping, were incising, excising, applique and shell impression. Evidence of a red slip has also been noted across much of the Lapita spectrum ([Mussau] Kirch 1997: 154; [Watom] Specht 1968: 127; [Buka] Wickler 2001: 96; [Santa Cruz] Donovan 1973: 69; [Vanuatu] Hedrick nd; [New Caledonia] Smart in Golson 1971: 70; [Fiji] Palmer 1968: 20; [Tonga] Kirch 1988: 174; Poulsen 1987: 358).


Identification of additional decoration, which is applied only post-firing, has been largely restricted to lime or clay infill of the dentate-stamped or incised motifs. The use of lime infill has long been recorded and again it appears to be present throughout the Lapita distribution ([Mussau] Kirch 1997; [Watom] Anson 1983: 31; Specht 1968: 130; [Santa Cruz] Donovan 1973: 69; [Vanuatu] Hedrick nd; [New Caledonia] Avias 1950: 131; [Fiji] Best 1981; [Tonga] Burley et al. …