Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Ritually Breaking Lapita Pots: Or, Can We Get into the Minds of Oceanic First Settlers? A Discussion

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Ritually Breaking Lapita Pots: Or, Can We Get into the Minds of Oceanic First Settlers? A Discussion

Article excerpt


One of the striking characteristics of Lapita archaeology during the past century has been the very limited number of preserved whole or nearly whole pots found in excavations. This appears odd for ceramics mostly interpreted in the scientific literature as non-utilitarian and carrying social or ritual symbolism. The clear connection between dentate-stamped pots and complex burial rituals at the Teouma site (Vanuatu), along with studies on pottery breakage carried out in other parts of the world, allows the canvassing of a theoretical model that explains the apparent absence of logic in finding numerous Lapita pots reduced to small potsherds. By positioning the analysis in a .framework relying on the specific behaviour of Pacific Islanders regarding the "invisible" and by using ethnographic Melanesian rituals as examples of how "natural forces" can be controlled, this paper proposes a hypothetical reeonstruction of' one of the possible ceremonies that may have been practiced by Oceanic explorers in newly settled islands.

Keywords: Pacific archaeology, Lapita, pottery breaking, prehistoric rituals, archaeological interpretation.


Archaeologists are expected to be good diggers and to be able to get a story out of the physical remains that they have excavated. But as soon as we move into more socio-political and symbolic grounds, we are often accused by our colleagues in cultural anthropology, especially in the Pacific, of lacking the proper ethnological background to really speak about Indigenous social behaviours (Guiart 2008). The present paper is deliberately positioned in a slippery domain of this kind, proposing the reconstruction of a hypothetical Lapita ritual involving dentate-stamped pots 3000 years ago.

Pottery is a core element of all archaeological studies of Neolithic societies, but its significance, aside from reconstructing typologies, chronologies, production techniques or exchange networks, can also be central when studying symbolic behaviours and rituals. It is not the scope of this paper to review this aspect of ceramic studies worldwide, but to concentrate on the topic of pottery breakage as identified in archaeological contexts. A number of archaeologists, especially those working on the Neolithic/Copper Age of the Balkans (Chapman 2000) and Northern Europe (Larsson 2009), have highlighted the need to take into account the purposeful breakage of pots and other objects in past cultures. The social, political and/or symbolic reasons proposed to explain this behaviour range from the construction of personhood to social categories or gender identity, in some cases participating in a larger enchained network of groups/ families and in rituals related to the dead (Chapman & Gaydarska 2007). All these topics are familiar to Pacific Island cultures and thus allow us to question the possible significance of symbolic pottery breakage in our own archaeological contexts. Can we move beyond simple taphonomic explanations to analyse--for example, in a Lapita context of first Oceanic settlement--the process of potsherd breakage that we discover in our excavations and give it other meanings? This is the topic of the present paper.


Discussion papers allow us the freedom to make hypotheses without having to develop a long theoretical context. As the title of this essay implies, my topic is on a theme that can only be addressed though an open-minded approach related to a group of explorers that expanded from Near Oceania to the previously unknown archipelagos of the South-Western Pacific more than 3000 years ago. Lapita has been described in general terms as a regional manifestation of a larger-scale Austronesian-speaking front, with early origins in Island South-East Asia (Green 2003; Kirch 1997) and cultural input from pre-existing populations in Northern Melanesia (Torrence & Swadling 2008). The diaspora can be followed archaeologically by the presence of intricately dentate-stamped decorated pottery remains in sites scattered from the Bismarck Archipelago to Samoa (Sand & Bedford 2010), a span of over 4000 kilometres. …

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