Thesis: Lapita Pottery

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Lapita Pottery

The native peoples called the Lapita who lived an estimated 3,000 years ago on the scattered islands of what is now the Kingdom of Tonga have left part of their cultural legacy available to be studied through their ceramics, according to the literature. This paper reviews some of the research that explores the Lapita craftsmanship through archaeological studies; through the research scholars and others are unearthing truths about the people who created the pottery and lived all those years ago.

The United Nations (UNESCO) supports and helps to education citizens about current research into native cultures, and its report ("Lapita Pottery Archaeological Sites") on the Lapita (published in 2007 by the "Tonga National Commission for UNESCO") (TNC) establishes for the world community that "Lapita sites are of international significance for the story they tell of the human colonization of the last major region of the world…the Islands of Remote Oceania" (http://whc.unesco.org). The Lapita peoples certainly had developed sophisticated seafaring and navigation skills because evidence of their existence (through their pottery) is found in remote places to the south and east of the Solomon Islands.

In order to thrive, colonize remote islands and create their pottery and other crafts the Lapita needed a "detailed knowledge and understanding of the Oceanic environment, the natural resources of the land and sea" the TNC explains. There are at least 100 "known Lapita sites" and many of those have been "systematically excavated and analyzed"; and although their pottery / ceramics are to be found in a vast swath across "six major Pacific archipelagos" their "decorated ceramics" were apparently manufactured within a fairly brief time frame, perhaps during a window of time that lasted 300 to 400 years, the Tonga National Commission explains. The archeologists and scholars have verified the data regarding this time frame through radiocarbon dating of the sites.

Meanwhile, Dr. Matthew Walter Felgate of the University of Auckland has produced a 500+ page research document focused on Lapita "pottery scatters" in shallow water and lagoons in the Solomon Islands (Felgate, 2003). Felgate -- who prepared his massive and mostly deep science manuscript as a fulfillment of his Doctor of Philosophy in anthropology -- writes that there has existed a "large gap in the recorded distribution of Lapita." Hence, his work has involved the scientific interpretation with reference to the discoveries of Lapita pottery in the sheltered, land-locked Roviana Lagoon (near Bougainville), which is centrally located in the "gap" that he sought to define more clearly for the literature.

Felgate was able to find "scatters of pottery, stone artifacts and other stone items" in the shallow water of Roviana Lagoon because "falling" water levels have resulted in "high archaeological visibility" in the region. His paper seeks to verify that Lapita peoples were "continuously distributed across Near Oceania as a network of stilt village settlement" (houses built over the water on stilts). The conclusion of the production of various "elaborate vessel forms" was likely a "functional change," Felgate surmises based on previous research of the Lapita people, but it could also be that the making of pottery ended is perhaps linked to the demise of the Lapita culture based on "fundamental social changes" (Felgate 2003 p. 78). In describing the pottery, Felgate quotes Green (1974):

The Lapita Ceramic Series was "…assemblages in which various shoulder pots,

Jars and bowls, as well as flat-bottomed dishes and plates, occur in association

With wifely varying percentages of dentate-stamped, notched and incised

Decoration…there is a range of infrequently decorated bowls of simple shapes

And varying sizes, plus several forms of rather more frequently decorated

Sub-globular pots" (Green 1974) (Felgate 2003 p. 78).

Between the years 1,600 BC and 400 BC -- according to Parker (1981) -- indeed for more than a thousand years the pottery in the Western Lapita area have shown "little change in the shape" of the vessels; hence, Felgate agrees with previous researchers that the Lapita ceramic industry was "very long-lasting and stable" as a tradition (Felgate p. 84). Felgate writes in a scientific style that requires concentration by the layperson, and he explains that there are many uncertainties remaining with regard to understanding the pottery manufacturing, what motifs were predominant and where they were located. Sherds, which are fragments of ancient pottery in this context, are the keys to understanding the whole picture of Lapita ceramics and culture.

"Sherd count alone" (Felgate 2003 p. 87-88) cannot paint a complete picture of which pieces of pottery had rare motifs on them and which had more common motifs (designs). One of the problems in conducting this research, Felgate explains, is that the zones in which these sherds are located are "highly disturbed by sand-crab borrowing" that was believed to be responsible for the transportation of "substantial amounts of pottery to the surface" (Felgate 2003 p. 88). Moreover, the fact that the sea level dropped following the end of the Lapita era, and that there was "burrowing and turbation by marine arthropods, mammals, flora and fish" adds to the dilemma and shrouds the research in some degree of mystery (Felgate 2003 p. 88).

What anthropologists and other scientists are finding are "generally highly fragmented samples of Lapita pottery" (Felgate 2003 p. 89) which makes it difficult to wholly reconstruct the manufacturing process, he continues. One of the key questions, and most interesting questions posed, relates to the changes in ceramic design in different regions of the Lapita community, widely spread out across thousands of miles of oceans. When there were changes in design, were those changes universal (spread across the islands far and wide) due to "synchronous" cultural adaptations, that is, happening at the same time period and yet not in coordination with other Lapita pottery makers thousands of miles away. That question is unanswered and is the source of much speculation (Felgate 2003 p. 90).

Another scholarly article published in the journal Archaeometry (Kennett, et al. 2004) points to time frames for the production of Lapita pottery -- and the number of sites where the pottery sherds have been examined -- that are different than other scholarship. Kennett asserts that there are over 180 archaeological sites that extend across 5,000 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, and radiocarbon dating indicates the Lapita were initially making pottery in the Bismark Archipelago "between 3450 and 3200 cal years BP" (Kennett 2004 p. 35). The "deep interest" that archaeologists demonstrate vis-a-vis Lapita pottery is due to their curiosity about "the dispersal of people into increasingly remote regions" (Kennett 2004 p. 35). Of particular interest to these scientists is not so much the pottery as it is what clues the pottery offers about the movement of ancient peoples. The fact that the islands of "Near Oceania" apparently served as a "staging area for longer-distance voyaging and the ultimate colonization of Remote Oceania" (Kennett 2004 p. 35) intrigues scholars and scientists.

Kennett and colleagues report that the use of "dentate stamping" of Lapita pottery "is broadly similar" throughout the vast reaches of those islands. This raises the question as to whether the pottery was "manufactured at a limited number" of production venues and then distributed through networks using deep-sea-going canoes -- or if the pottery was manufactured at "a large number of locations and other mechanisms account for the transmission of Lapita design motifs" (Kennett 2004 p. 36). The answer to that question may be found in the fact that Lapita potters "typically added sand to the clay used for manufacturing pottery vessels," Kennett explains. And due to fact that sands are derived from local bedrock of a "restricted island character" (that is, many islands have unique mineralogy) and diagnostic investigations can determine the origins, scientists are quite convinced that "long-distance exchange of ceramics was relatively limited" (Kennett 2004 p. 36).

The salient point of the Kennett research is that this group of researchers have introduced a new technique called "inductively coupled plasma -- mass spectrometry (ICP-MS)" that is helpful in determining "the provenance of Lapita pottery" (Kennett 2004 p. 37). These scientists took sherd samples from "three different island groups" that span the "full geographical range of known Lapita distribution" -- and the result of this investigation is that ICP-MS data shows "most Lapita pottery was manufactured locally" and yet "much more work is required to sort out" some of the more subtle patterns (Kennett 2004 p. 44).

That having been said, research by a professor from The Australian National University (Ambrose 2003 p. 213) reveals that the Lapita pottery consisted of "elaborately ornamented vessels" and were "low-fired" and constructed with "un-standardized raw materials" (e.g. "calcareous sand tempering" from beach sands). The decorated pottery is "red-slipped, producing a fine textured surface" which was "ideally suited" for the detailed decorations that the Lapita people used (Ambrose 2003 p. 213). Ambrose (with the Department of Archaeology and Natural History) asserts that the transition from the "fastidious" ornamentation on a "wide rage of vessel forms" to a more "prosaic" (e.g. plain), "less varied" design meant for different purposes "signals the reduced importance" to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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