Forming the eastern tip of Polynesia is the small and isolated island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Although famous for its extraordinary statues (moai) that once stood on ceremonial platforms (ahu), there is a wealth of associated but less well-known archaeological sites and monuments. As seen in CWA 104, the spectacular ruined ahu complex at Akahanga, with its fallen moai and topknots (pukao) is situated on the south coast of Rapa Nui. With the roar of the Pacific Ocean in our ears, if we walked inland, within a hundred metres or so the foundations of a number of houses (hare paenga) would become visible poking through the low grass. These take the form of a series of shaped black basalt blocks (paenga) set end-to-end to form a boat-shaped house foundation. The blocks were well-bedded in the ground and each has a series of circular holes cut into the upper surface. During house construction, thin c.2m lengths of wood were pushed into each hole and, at the top, pulled together and lashed to a ridge-pole to form a keel-like roof. This would create an unusual house shape reminiscent of the hull of an upturned canoe. Outside the front of the house, a semicircle of water-worn stones (poro) provided a platform area.
Houses of this form are restricted to Rapa Nui and not present on other Polynesian islands. In order to explore this exceptional architecture further, it is necessary to move away from the houses themselves and consider two things: first, the way in which Rapa Nui was initially colonised, and, second, the beliefs of the early settlers. By this means we will see the hare paenga is much more than a dwelling replicating the imagery of an upturned canoe, but through the use of particular materials this architecture expressed a model of the cosmos that had a substantial affect on those who encountered it.
In the book On the Road of the Winds, Patrick Kirch suggests ‘the history of the Pacific is more than anything a history of voyages, and all that word entails: curiosity, courage, skill, technique, stamina, doubt, hope and more’. Through a series of extraordinary voyages, ancient Polynesians sailed mainly eastwards encountering and settling islands as they went. This was a truly remarkable feat because the vast Pacific Ocean can be as treacherous and dangerous as it is beautiful. Originally, because of the massive distances traversed, this was believed to have taken almost a millennium to achieve, but is now considered to have occurred within c.300 years from c.AD 900-1200, and possibly even less. This was the great age of Polynesian expansion and the time of the voyaging canoe. From a variety of sources, we know that canoes were not merely functional sea-craft, but vessels of sacred character. From the rituals surrounding their construction to the launching ceremonies, canoes attained special significance, and we can be sure that this was enhanced in the case of voyaging canoes.
Of course, dating the initial colonisation of an island is fraught with difficulties, but at some time in the century between AD 1100 and 1200, voyagers stepped ashore on the very small and isolated island of Rapa Nui. At the time of landing, the island was very different from the denuded landscape of today. While being dominated by the three extinct volcanic cones that give the island its triangular shape, lush vegetation including swaying palms would have been present running down almost to the water’s edge. However, to appreciate the way in which these settlers would come to build some of the most spectacular monuments in eastern Polynesia, it is important to recognise that it was not merely the vegetation that was different from today, but also that the people themselves understood the world in a very different manner – and their place within it.
While there is no firm evidence whence the first settlers of Rapa Nui set sail, it was likely to have been from somewhere in the Society or Tuamotu Islands, or possibly the closer Mangareva or Pitcairn. However, in terms of belief systems, this easterly movement across the Pacific continued an ancestral movement that began when the first ancestors left the shores of the mythical island of Hawaiki (known as ‘Hiva’ on Rapa Nui), situated somewhere in the distant west. This was the Polynesian homeland from which the first ancestors ventured forth and the place to which the spirits returned on death. In this respect, Hawaiki shared an affinity with something known to the Polynesians as the realm of Po. This can be described as a sacred netherworld, a place of otherness, darkness and night-time, yet of potency and the beginning of things. Its opposite can be found in Ao, which concerns the everyday encountered physical world of people and social relationships. Of course, this is a simplification of a complex cosmological system, but it will suffice here. An important point to take from this is that the voyaging that led to the colonisation of the eastern Pacific would have been as much about perpetuating and recreating ancestral voyages as obtaining access to new lands. Equally, the sea acted as a conduit or ‘road’ back to Hawaiki, and on the western coasts of many Polynesian islands there is a ‘jumping off’ point for the spirits of the dead to enter the sea and return to Hawaiki and the realm of Po. This has relevance when we come to consider the canoe-shaped houses of Rapa Nui.
It would appear that from the earliest time the newly arrived settlers embarked on building monuments, creating sacred spaces, and carving and dressing stone images or statue moai. Initially, the moai were fairly small (up to c.2m in height), and were carved out of volcanic rocks of different types (and colours) – for example, bright red scoria, black basalt, olive volcanic tuff, and white trachyte. They were probably set on small stone platforms (ahu), which are known as marae in other parts of east Polynesia.
Within a hundred years or so, there occurred an expansion in monument construction, with bigger and more elaborate ahu being built and larger moai being erected in greater numbers. At this time, virtually all the moai were now made from volcanic tuff, which was derived from a single source: the great quarry of Rano Raraku, situated in the south- east of Rapa Nui. Rano Raraku is a large volcanic cone that rises steeply from a flat plain. The outer and inner south-eastern slopes of the extinct volcano are sculpted by numerous recessed quarry bays that produced hundreds of beautifully carved moai, many of these were subsequently transported to the numerous ahu platforms situated around the coast of the island. This was accompanied by the quarrying at Puna Pau, in the west of the island, of large cylinders of red scoria known as pukao, which were placed on the heads of the moai and sometimes likened to hats.
It was an investigation of the complexities of monumental construction, considered to be as much a social process as an exercise in the deployment of new technologies, that brought a team of researchers from Britain (University College London, University of the Highlands and Islands, Bournemouth University, University of Manchester), and Hawai‘i (Hawai‘i Pacific University) to Rapa Nui. The project – entitled Rapa Nui: landscapes of construction – began in 2007 and ran over an eight-year period. Apart from the quarries, our attention focused on the many ahu, especially those with fallen moai (all the standing moai on ahu have been re-erected). It soon became clear that monumentality in ancient Rapa Nui, particularly ahu construction, was very much an ongoing process, with building work extending over several hundred years. There were a number of interesting features at different ahu complexes that raised our curiosity. For example, at ahu Tahai, on the western coast, a monumental canoe ramp is central to the complex being flanked by platforms and moai gazing inland. Similarly, the massive ahu Akahanga together with ahu Ura Uranga te Mahina flanks a small inlet with a canoe ramp.
This is a common landscape characteristic where ahu platforms with moai are built at potential canoe-launching sites. In assuming this location, the ahu and moai sit at the interface between land and sea, and by virtue of gazing inland, watch over those who ventured to sea and transgressed that boundary. Of course, launching canoes at the ahu would have been restricted to formal or special occasions, as being in the sea is intrinsic to Polynesian life, both in the past and today.
One element of a number of these ahu complexes that caught our attention was the inland grouping of the canoe-shaped houses: hare paenga. These distinctive houses, which tend to be c.12-16m in length, appear to be contemporary with the ahu platforms. Given their proximity to – and association with – ahu, they have been described as high-status dwellings for both priests and chiefs. However, in some instances these structures were huge, measuring up to c.90-100m in length and 3m in width. These are known as hare nui and are thought to have acted as meeting houses. Their foundation paenga stones were equally enormous, being up to 3.5m in length.
The doorways of the early hare paenga faced the raised ahu platforms and were therefore also orientated towards the sea. At this point, it is worth considering the various features and components of these houses as they affected the experiences of those entering them. Approaching the entrance of the hare paenga would involve walking across the paved area of poro. It will be remembered that poro are small rounded boulders, and their shape and condition is due to their being rolled in the water of the shoreline by the pounding surf (Rapa Nui has no surrounding reef). So, in this respect, they are a material that is found at the interface of land and sea, in effect marking a transitional zone. This is precisely the role they perform within the architecture of the hare paenga, where elements of the island world are used as a resource to create allied but different affects in built architecture.
Once the poro platform has been crossed, access into the hare paenga is through a short tunnel-like doorway. If we look closely at the 1872 drawing by Pierre Loti of ‘a chief’s house’, something rather interesting is present in the form of two small moai-like statues positioned either side of the doorway. In the Diary of a Cadet on the Warship ‘La Flore’, translated by Ann M Altman, Loti describes entry into a hare paenga on 4 January 1872:
We stop in front of one of the many thatched dwellings that are flattened among the rocks and the sand, where they resemble the backs of sleeping animals. My escorts invite me to go inside and I have to get down on my hands and knees, wriggling like a cat going through a cat-door, because the entrance, at ground level and guarded by two granite divinities with sinister expressions, is a round hole that is barely two feet high.
Entry into the hare paenga involved passing between the diminutive moai to gain access to the interior. This resonates with the formal or ceremonial passage of people from land to sea undertaken down a canoe ramp at one of the ahu complexes under the watchful eyes of the moai. It should also be recalled that the sea acts as a conduit to Hawaiki and the sacred realm of Po.
At the hare paenga, it is worth mentioning that the majority of daily tasks are undertaken outside in the sunlight (the domain of Ao). Therefore, the dark interior of the hare paenga is a place to sleep, and sleep is a time when people semi-enter the realm of Po. Equally, the architecture of the house is that of the canoe, and the canoe is the vehicle of passage in which the ancestors left Hawaiki on voyages of discovery ending in the colonisation of Polynesia. In the hare paenga, architecture and materials fuse to provide the appropriate ingredients to enable safe and successful entry and transition from one domain to another.
Passage to Po
If the hare paenga associated with the ahu were houses for the priests and chiefs, then the potency of the materials and architecture of the house is increased, since these were people who were considered to be closer to the ancestral deities. In this brief account, we have seen how entry into the house involves not merely going ‘indoors’ but a passage from the daylight (Ao) to the darkness (Po). The control of this transition was obviously of great concern to the inhabitants of ancient Rapa Nui in all aspects of their lives. This is so well demonstrated by the linkage between similar acts of passage between realms occurring at the hare paenga and the ahu. At both sites, the passage is from the everyday to the ‘sacred’ and, in both instances, it is undertaken under the watchful gaze of the moai, because such passage involves entering the domain of Po and, in doing so, coming into closer proximity to the ancestors, an undertaking that was not without consequence or danger.
FURTHER READING S Hamilton and C Richards (2016) ‘Between realms: entering the darkness of the hare paenga in ancient Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’, in M Dowd and R Hensey (eds) The Archaeology of Darkness, Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp.85-100. T Heyerdahl (1958) Aku-Aku: the secret of Easter Island, New York: Rand Mcnally & Co (also published by Penguin Books). K Routledge (2005 ) The Mystery of Easter Island, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui: Museum Press. J A Van Tilburg (1994) Easter Island: archaeology, ecology and culture, London: British Museum Press.