Academic journal article Antiquity

The Rapid Emergence of the Archaic Tongan State: The Royal Tomb of Paepaeotelea

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Rapid Emergence of the Archaic Tongan State: The Royal Tomb of Paepaeotelea

Article excerpt


The physical remains of archaic states hold the clearest evidence available of the decisive social and political processes that accompanied the creation of complex societies. State-level societies are rare in the prehistoric Pacific (Kirch 2010; Hommon 2013); the archaic Tongan state is the only known polity in Oceania to extend political control over an entire archipelago and to influence islands beyond its borders (Petersen 2000; Neitzel & Earle 2014). Traditional history and sparse archaeological data have long suggested that the Tongan state emerged in eastern Tongatapu at Heketa in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries AD, and after the capital was relocated to Lapaha the state reached its height around AD 1500 following an aggressive campaign of inter-island warfare conducted by the twenty-fourth holder of the title paramount Tu'i Tonga (Lord of Tonga) (Bott 1982; Burley 1998: 368).

The premier monument of the Tongan state is the royal tomb Paepaeotelea (Figure 1) in the chiefly centre of Lapaha on the main island of Tongatapu ('sacred Tonga'). The tomb is the largest prehistoric structure made in worked stone in the South Pacific, and contains blocks of coral limestone weighing over 20 tonnes. The tomb is traditionally linked to the twenty-ninth paramount Uluakimata I who, on genealogical grounds, ruled Tonga around AD 1600 (Gifford 1929). The size and assumed age of Paepaeotelea is consistent with a development sequence in which major architectural projects were undertaken by the state several centuries after its emergence, when the Tongan polity was at its greatest extent (Kirch 1984; Aswani Sl Graves 1998: 151). New archaeological research presented in this paper indicates, however, that Paepaeotelea was in fact built between AD 1300 and 1400, which changes our understanding of the Tongan state in three significant respects. First, the most energy-expensive and stylistically complex example of monumental architecture is probably the oldest of the royal tombs at Lapaha. Second, the tomb marks a dramatic increase in the scale of mortuary structures and land modification, representing substantial extraction of labour by an early archaic state. Third, the presence of stone tools associated with the tomb and geochemically sourced to multiple islands, indicates frequent, long-distance voyaging and the growth of the tributary base. As Baines and Yoffee (1998: 229) note: "There is a clear correlation between monuments and centralization", and Paepaeotelea indicates that within 100 years the early Tongan state was able to organise and command the resources of the scattered archipelago.

Tomb description

Paepaeotelea (tomb J20) is located in Lapaha village on the inner shoreline of the Fanga 'Uta Lagoon where the ancient capital of the Tongan state (Figure 1) was founded in around AD 1300 by the twelfth Tu'i Tonga. In Tongan traditions, J20 is associated with the twenty-ninth Tu'i Tonga Uluakimata I (also known as 'Telea') who lived around AD 1600. The structure is famous for its massive limestone blocks that were reputedly made on 'Uvea Island and taken 850km to Tongatapu on the giant voyaging canoe Lomipeau (Martinello 2006). The tomb is the current burial place of the family that holds the bloodline of the Tu'i Tonga. Records indicate that at least four individuals have been interred in J20 since 1900 (1907, 1935, 1999 & 2010).

The J20 tomb is rectangular (26-28m x 41.5m) and has three levels of stone work (Figure 1). The basal and second tiers are constructed from carefully fitted blocks of coral limestone, except for two beach-rock slabs in the eastern and western walls of the second tier. The third tier is made of slabs that form when stratified beach sediments are cemented with calcium carbonate in the inter-tidal zone. The basal limestone blocks are raised above current ground level by 0.5-1.0m, but excavation reveals that the lower blocks have a total height of 1. …

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