About the Monolithic Statues of Easter Island

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, February 2011 | Go to article overview

About the Monolithic Statues of Easter Island


Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


Students will recognize this month s Clip & Save Art Print selection as the bossy, gum-chewing, talking head from the hit movie, Night at the Museum. What they might not know is that the mask-like sculpture--and the 886 others like it that adorn Easter Island in the South Pacific--is one of the world's most mysterious and compelling archaeological artifacts ever discovered.

Little is known of these massive monolithic statues. Historians believe that the first people to settle on this Polynesian island, known as Rapa Nui to the native inhabitants, arrived in canoes around 400 A.D. The creation of the "moai," the islanders' name for the stone colossi, is estimated between 1400 and 1600.

The first Westerners to lay eyes on the statues were unable to ascertain how they were made and what they meant to their creators. "As early as the 17th century the first European explorers noted that the inhabitants had lost track of the meaning of the statues and had pushed many into the sea." (Source: Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 2nd ed. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985.)

The fact that there is no written record, and an incomplete oral record, only adds to the mystery of the Easter Island statues. Some of the questions historians and archaeologists have asked over the centuries are" Who made the statues? How did they transport them from the central quarry area to various points around the island? Who do they represent? How were they used? What religious or cultural significance did they hold?

The nearly 900 statues, all male, have nearly identical features atop nondescript block-like torsos. "Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has studied the moai for many years, believes the statues may have been created in the image of various paramount chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized representations of powerful individuals. …

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