Magnetometer Surveys in Archaeological Research in Papua New Guinea: Keveoki 1, Gulf Province

Article excerpt


A magnetometer survey was conducted on the abandoned village site of Keveoki 1, near the Vailala River, Gulf Province, PNG. The survey, using a single sensor proton precession magnetometer, was successful in locating and defining the boundaries of areas confirmed by excavation to contain dense assemblages of pottery. The combination of geophysical and excavation results allowed a broader understanding of the spatial distribution of human occupation at Keveoki 1 than would have been possible based on excavation or visual field walking alone. We suggest this technique should be applied more regularly.

Keywords: magnetometry, archaeological geophysics, Papua New Guinea, pottery


Archaeological geophysical prospection techniques have not previously been applied as part of archaeological investigations in Papua New Guinea (PNG), despite an extensive history of archaeological research in this area (e.g. Bulmer 1978; Frankel and Vanderwal 1985; White and O'Connell 1982). In part, this deficiency may be explained by the perceived high cost of geophysical survey as well as the difficulties associated with operating and transporting electronic equipment to the often remote, extremely rugged, wet tropical and inaccessible archaeological sites of the region. Nevertheless geophysical techniques have a demonstrated history of making an important contribution to archaeological investigations world-wide (e.g. Witten 2006; Conyers 2004; Gaffney and Gater 2003) and have the potential to answer important archaeological questions in PNG also. In particular, they have the potential to extend site information beyond the limited spatial extent usually obtained through excavation, and thus promise to enable understandings of village sites as spatially extensive landscapes rather than more restricted spatial nodes (Kvamme 2003). This is particularly apt for PNG where thick vegetation and swampy conditions can make site discovery through more conventional field walking very difficult.

The archaeological record in many coastal parts of PNG is particularly amenable to geophysical investigations because here can be found extensive sites with dense ceramic deposits as well as numerous sub-surface structural features such as postholes, human burials and earth ovens. Since electromagnetic induction (EMI) and magnetic susceptibility in particular can directly detect pottery (Clark 1990) as well as the remnants of burning (Linford and Canti 2001) and anthropogenically-induced microbial activity (Linford 2004), geophysical prospecting evidently has great potential in such archaeological contexts. Other techniques, such as ground penetrating radar (GPR) (Conyers 2004) and direct current resistivity (Witten (2006) may find less regular application in this area, but could contribute where favourable site conditions exist.

Potential targets for archaeological prospection in PNG

While a variety of archaeological sites exist in PNG including rockshelter sites, coastal middens and agricultural landscapes, all of which have considerable potential for the application of geophysical techniques, here we focus our attention on the archaeological expression of an ancient village site from swampy southern PNG lowlands.

Recent villages of the Vailala River area--as of other areas of PNG also--typically housed a few dozen to a few thousand people, and contained from a handful to dozens of wooden and thatched houses. Some houses were particularly grand in size and reputation, such as the men's longhouses that could be over 100 m long and that housed sacred and secret ritual objects. Houses of all kinds were typically raised 1 m or more above the ground. It was common for family members to be buried in graves beneath individual houses.

Geophysical prospection techniques are well suited to investigating the spatiality of village organization in this part of PNG, and in doing so tracing archaeological expressions of local social institutions as recorded in the ethnographic literature. …