Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Megaliths of Muyuw (Woodlark Island), Milne Bay Province, PNG

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Megaliths of Muyuw (Woodlark Island), Milne Bay Province, PNG

Article excerpt


Archaeological survey on Muyuw (Woodlark Island) in the Massim area of Papua New Guinea located a number of stone arrangements, commonly known as megaliths. Test excavations have revealed the use of the stone arrangements as burial structures. The Muyuw data show a complex pattern of changing internal relationships and regional political relationships. The presence of stone arrangements in all the major islands of the northern Massim (and possibly beyond), hints at a shared regional symbolic system for dealing with the dead, and organising labour for public work. Stone arrangements form a complex Early Period (~1500BP-600BP) landscape built for the dead to negotiate relationships between the living throughout the northern Massim. Yet by 600 BP, this landscape had probably lost its symbolic potency. These sites are discussed in relation to the prehistory of the island and the region as a whole.


In contrast to the substantial ethnographic research in the islands of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), or Massim, archaeology has been spasmodic, and as a result the prehistory of the region is little understood (Kirch 1991:150). This is particularly so in the northern Massim, from the Trobriand to Woodlark Island groups. Archaeological survey work carried out by the authors in 1995 and 1996 on Muyuw (Figure 1) has added substantial new data to northern Massim archaeology (Bickler 1998, 1999). The most dramatic sites found on Muyuw are the stone arrangements or megaliths.


Megaliths have been described on Kiriwina, Kailuena, Tuma and Kitava Islands in the Trobriands as well as on Muyuw (e.g., Austen 1939, Oilier et al. 1970a,b). However, their function has remained the subject of some debate (Austen 1939, Damon 1983, Oilier and Pain 1978a, b). Even less understood has been the chronology of the sites. The research described here was intended to find additional sites, fill out the descriptions of those previously recorded, and resolve some of the conflicts between the different reports. A Global Positioning System (GPS) system greatly enhanced determining the spatial relationships of the sites with each other, while test excavations were used to gain information on the construction and functional history of the sites.

Academic interest in the stone arrangements spans the 20th century. Charles Seligmann (Seligmann and Joyce 1907) noted one on Muyuw atop the Undalai Hill where stone axes traded throughout the Kula ring were manufactured. Malinowski did not show particular interest in the arrangements, but was aware of them and photographed some (Young 1998). F.E. Williams (Austen 1939) produced a report on some of the Trobriand megaliths for the colonial government and prompted the interest shown by Austen (1939). He revisited the sites described by Williams and located several additional sites in the area, describing the megaliths as burial sites: `places of privileged burial' (Austen 1939:43). Forth (1965) detailed some of the Muyuw megaliths around the northern village of Kaulay and reiterated the majority of Austen's conclusions.

However, the most extensive survey during 1970s by geologists Ollier and colleagues described caves and stone arrangements in northern Massim (e.g., Ollier and Pain 1978a,b, Ollier et al. 1970a, b, 1971a, b, 1973), included the first accurate survey of many of the arrangements and recorded several more. They suggested a link between the caves and stones based on relationships of stories about emergence of people from caves, the building of stone houses (the megaliths) and the presence of inverted stalactites in some megaliths, then concluded that it was "fairly certain that Trobriand megalithic structures were originally funerary monuments" (Ollier et al. 1973:50).

Damon (1979, 1983) gives the most thorough description of the stone structures on Muyuw, and identified a new type of archaeological structure: trenches. …

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