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Astonishing Lapita pottery from the Pacific

By Laura Angela Bagnetto

Transport yourself 3,000 years back in time to the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu at the  Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

The Lapita people were the first human settlers in the South Pacific, who originally came from Taiwan 3,000 years ago and migrated through Papua New Guinea down to Vanuatu. Archaeologists have found a special type of pottery which they left behind-- elaborately decorated pots covered in lines and arcs that were made with a sharp, fine tool.

© musée du quai Branly

Over the past 50 years, this pottery has been found in some 250 sites. 

"The significance of Lapita ... is the pots themselves and the fine decorated motifs on the pots. It's so unique it astonished people from all over the world," say Vanuatuan Richard Shing, resident archaeologist at the Vanuatu Cultural Center in Port Vila.

The pots themselves were created by partially superimposing layers of clay, often using coral sand, which would then be fired between 600 and 750 °C.

The art of making these beautiful pots disappeared 500 years after the settlers came to Vanuatu, and its style declined after their arrival. "Very soon after their arrival ... the pottery simplifies," says Stuart Bedford, an archaeologist with Australian National University in Canberra who is a curator of the Lapita exhibition.

In 2004, archaeologists found the well-preserved Teouma burial site on Efate Island in Vanuatu. The oldest cemetery in the South Pacific, it is the only Lapita cemetery discovered so far.

"The cemetery site gives us an insight into the burial practices, which were ongoing, for potentially several years," says Bedford.

"People were revisiting the graves, removing bones. All the burials have their skulls removed and also they were placing these whole highly decorated pots with the graves," he adds.

One of the pots discovered at the cemetery was found with a skull inside, while one set of burial bones stood out from the others-- the burial site of an elderly male who has three skulls on his chest.

This shows that the bones were accessible and that they were moved over time, says Bedford. It also shows the man's high status in the community.

"We've found 80 individuals so far, seven skulls only, and three of them are on the chest of one individual. So he is clearly an important dude," says Bedford.

Understanding the connection between the Vanuatuans of today and the first people on the archipelago is a part of the archaeological process for Bedford, who has spent the past 15 years researching the origins of the first settlers.

An archipelago of more than 80 islands, Vanuatu is rich is many different cultures.

One important ritual tradition is sand drawing - sandroing in Bislama, one of the many languages spoken there.

This exhibition is the first time Lapita artifacts have been taken out of the country, so Vanuatuan artist Edgar Hinge performed the ritual tradition of sand drawings and accompanying flute as part of the opening ceremonies.

The beautiful pot shards displayed at Quai Branly repesent a craft that disappeared 2,500 years ago. But there is also pride in preserving a culture and making sure that future generations are exposed to it.

Marcellin Abong is director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. The centre works hand in hand with visiting archaeologists.

Vanuatu has the most languages - 113 - in the smallest area of land in the world. Abong makes sure that these languages are preserved by promoting cultural festivals and activities, including the creation of dictionaries for each language in the republic. He is also intimately involved with the Lapita collection, drawing the designs found on the sites for permanent centre records. 

This is the first time the Lapita pieces have left Vanuatu, but people are proud to have this exhbition mounted in Paris. In rediscovering their past, they want to share their culture.

Vanuatu and many other places in the Pacific, were evangelised by Christian missionaries, says Bedford.

"The churches have often created a disconnection with the deep past, so, as Vanuatu has reached 30 years of independence, people are now more relaxed about building identity," he says.

"When they hear that their ancestors had arrived at 1,000 years before the birth of Christ in one of the great chapters of human colonisation and exploration ... really, you can see them, lighting up."

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