Composite image of star mound at Vaitoomuli. It has 8 cogs/'ave although a few have partially collapsed. Picture credit - Alofa Fanueli of Vaito'omuli.

A research team from the Centre for Samoan Studies presented their initial findings today, of an archaeological survey in the inland areas of Vaito’omuli and Fa’aala in Savaii.

Held at the National University of Samoa, the presentation had an eager audience which included stakeholders, students, members of the public and the media. The project for the Documentation of Samoan Archaeological and Built Heritage Places and Associated Oral Traditions is funded by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

In April 2017, an archaeological survey was conducted inland in Palauli district on the island of Savaii. The team consisted of 5 lecturers and 14 students who were guests of the two villages. The purpose of the survey was to locate and record any remains of ancient Samoan settlements made up of key features such as tulaga fale (platforms for houses), fetu ma’a (star mounds), umuti (earthen ovens), pa (stone walls), and auala savali (walkways).

Star mound, fetu ma’a in Vaitoomuli.
Source: CSS

Accompanying the team was American archaeologist Gregory Jackmond who in the late 1970’s while he was a US Peace Corp volunteer, mapped an expansive ancient settlement of over 200 hectares inland of Vailoa village on the Nelson family-owned Letolo Plantation. Jackmond’s groundbreaking original survey became the foundation for the CSS 2017 survey.

The team canvassed 2 large swaths of bush measuring 300 x 300m inland of each village using Samsung S6 smart phones to take GPS waypoints, record data, photograph features and track their progress.

After working for only 2 days inland, the team had taken 673 GPS waypoints, amassed over 750 photographs and recorded 233 archaeological features, confirming that the inland areas above the current day villages, now used primarily for plantations and cattle farming – were once areas of dense prehistoric settlement.

Features mapped in Vaitoomuli in first 2 days only.
Source: CSS

As NUS lecturer Dionne Fonoti described, “We found lots of stone walls everywhere and over 160 platforms, tulaga fale. There are stone walkways as well, some are walled and very wide across. They stretch for several kilometres and we weren’t able to follow them and record exactly how long they went for.”

“We are looking here at what was a densely populated and a very sophisticated civilisation. Very much like the definition of a modern urban area as we understand it today.”

She was particularly excited to explain that they have also identified at least two structures that are as big as – or bigger – than the legendary Pulemelei Mound, which is thus far, the largest known and most ancient structure in Polynesia.

Gregory Jackmond and Dionne Fonoti at the seminar presentation today.

According to Jackmond, these results challenge several long-held assumptions about early Samoan population records and settlement patterns. “Previous assumptions were that most Samoans prior to 1840 lived on the coast and this seemed to be supported by earlier settlement studies.”

“But what we have found shows that Samoans had vast settlements inland and this raises key questions about what Samoan society may have been like?”

CSS slide presentation.

Unlike earlier archaeological work carried in Savaii, in the 1960s and 70s, the CSS team were able to utilise drones – thanks to SkyEye Samoa, together with LiDar imagery supplied with assistance of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE).

LiDAR is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating that target with a pulsed laser light, and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital representations of the target.

The LiDAR imagery from the surveyed areas detected extensive settlement remnants. Jackmond explained that the LiDAR was most effective in areas that had already been cleared for plantations. Where there is dense forest, LiDAR is less effective at detecting what lies beneath such thick barriers.

LiDAR image. Look closely for the raised patterning which denotes built structures above ground.
LiDAR image. Pink shaded area has structures detected on it.
LiDAR image of a star mound and surrounding settlements.
Courtesy of MNRE, Samoa.
Pulemelei Mound on LiDAR.
CSS slide show
LiDAR of previously unrecorded mound in Vailoa.

Jackmond concluded in his presentation that based on their preliminary findings, Samoans lived inland, at least 4.5km inland, possibly further, and there is an extensive population zone in Palauli.

He also said that Samoa’s ‘ancient’ population would have been “well over 100,000 people.” He based that on calculations of the number platforms they surveyed and estimated a minimum of 5 people living in each one.

CSS slide show.
CSS side show

As well as the surveying, the team also carried out consultations with the villages and recorded oral histories of village elders. As CSS explained, “Oral history and archaeology go hand in hand.”

“We are engaging in community archaeology which is ‘by the people for the people’. It engages grassroots communities and has a heavy emphasis on national public outreach. We have no set methodology but tailor each case to each village’s situation. Because as we know, no two villages in Samoa are the same.”

Gathering oral histories for the project.
Source: CSS

As part of their course, the students involved in the study, also worked in consultation with people of the village, to design mock tourist brochures presenting the sites as potential cultural tourism attractions. The sites can then generate possible revenue for the customary land owners, as well as aid in their preservation.

Ms Fonoti had nothing but praise for the young archaeology students working on the project. “Our student rookies are no longer rookies. They’ve done so much important field work, they’re veterans now!”

She also expressed the Centre’s appreciation for the people of Vaito’omuli and Fa’aala who not only welcomed them into their homes, but also who rendered vital assistance in surveying the area.

Phase 2 of the project will be in June 2017. The team will return to the Palauli area and survey another 4 blocks (9 hectares each). They will also collect data on known tourist sites and existing built heritage sites around Savaii.

Student archaeologists on the ferry back to Upolu after their study.
Source: CSS

The 14 students who participated in the study are – Justin Alatimu, Alna Pavitt, Susan Pita, Johannes Uili, Fa’ae’e Taula, Robyn Lam, Sera Fa’amao, Aleluia Toloa Gautusa, Jocia Matai’a, Aiga Niualuga, Madalene Gautusa, Telefina Potifara and Mutini Ne’emia.

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