Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Samoan Archaeology: A Review of Research History

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Samoan Archaeology: A Review of Research History

Article excerpt


This paper describes the history of archaeology carried out in the Samoan islands. Two archaeological programs under the leadership of Roger Green in the 1960s and Jesse Jennings in the 1970s have laid a firm foundation for the understanding of Samoan prehistory from an archaeological point of view. Subsequent research in American Samoa has also added to this knowledge. This review describes some of the major findings of settlements, mounds and artefacts and discusses the contributions of archaeological research in Samoa and points towards important theoretical and methodical issues for future research.

The setting of sights in Samoan archaeology

The Samoan Islands occupy an especially revealing place in Pacific history. They lie at the very edge of Lapita expansion as it is currently known, yet they have often been considered, on both traditional and archaeological grounds, as the locality of origin for subsequent Polynesian expansion. Archaeological research to date in Samoa has been rather limited. The research has focused mainly on establishing a general framework of prehistory with efforts directed at locating different sites and field monuments and investigating their temporal status. During the initial research, discussion on cultural chronology was focused on the shift from Lapita to plainware pottery and the abandonment of pottery altogether. The development of monumental architecture has been discussed only briefly (Davidson 1974a:228-30) Renewed archaeological investigations and a further discussion of such issues from a theoretical and comparative standpoint are seen as important.

No robust cultural chronology was worked out for Samoa during initial research but changes seen in the material culture and settlement pattern were discussed in a narrative way (Green and Davidson 1969a; 1974a). Subsequently, Roger Green (2002) suggested a cultural chronology for Samoa much in line with the one worked out by Burley et al. (1995) for West Polynesia as a whole (Table 1).

A search for origins, especially of the Polynesian 'homeland', has been a dominant paradigm for archaeology in the central Pacific region. The discussion has centred largely on the early Lapita settlement and its dispersal and the subsequent development of Ancestral Polynesian Society in West Polynesia (Kirch and Hunt 1993). The distribution, after initial settlement, of Samoan adzes from Fiji to central Polynesia suggests extensive interactions, which by late prehistory seems to have involved marriage alliances and the exchange of sandalwood and red feathers amongst other communities (Clark 2002, 2004:35-6).

Previous archaeological research and the natural setting

The Samoan chain of islands is today divided into the independent state of Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa) and American Samoa (a United States territory) (Figure 1). The former consists of the large volcanic islands 'Upolu and Savai'i, the two smaller islands Manono and Apolima between them and a few offshore islets beyond the Southeastern point of 'Upolu. The latter includes the larger island of Tutuila with its offshore islet Anunu'u and a group of smaller islands under the name of Manu'a, (Ofu, Olosega and Ta'u Islands). The Samoan islands are of volcanic origin and essentially are mountains and ridges sitting on the Pacific plate just north of the Tonga-Kermadec trench. The larger islands in the west are older than those to the east. Volcanism is most recent in the east where Ta'u (American Samoa) dates 100,000 BP. The oldest flows on 'Upolo and Savai'i are the Fagaloa and Salani respectively. Fagaloa volcanics may be of Pliocene origin (5.3-1.8 million years ago) and Salani are probably late Pleistocene (1.8 million-10,000 years ago). The Mulifanua flow is presumed to be between 10,000-40,000 years old, the Lefaga flow is post-Pleistocene, the Puapua flow is mid-Holocene (c. 5000 years old), and the Apo flows are from the historic period with its last eruption in the beginning of last century (Kear and Wood 1959). …

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