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Recent discoveries from the archaeology of mission sites in the Mangareva Islands of Polynesia

Presented by Dr James L. Flexner

Archaeology, University of Sydney; Research Associate, Australian Museum

Recorded Wednesday 14 December 2022


Beginning in 1834, a group of Catholic priests and lay builders under the auspices of the Pères des Sacres Coeurs established a mission in the Mangareva Islands (also called Îles Gambier) in what is today French Polynesia. In the subsequent decades, the missionaries and their Polynesian converts constructed churches and shrines on each of the main inhabited islands; a royal complex for the “king” Maputeoa; towers and other monuments; and dozens of stone houses for Christian Islanders. Remarkably, this landscape of conversion and culture change remains largely in place today, albeit in a state of ruination. This talk presents the initial findings of a larger four-year project investigating the archaeology of the Catholic mission in the Mangareva Islands. Archaeological survey carried out in November 2022 documented dozens of 19th century mission structures, from the grand cathedral in Rikitea to local sites of food production such as bread ovens and pits for the making and preserving of popoe (fermented breadfruit paste). This research highlights themes of transformation, but also adaptation and resilience during a century of dramatic encounters with others in Oceania.


I'm going to talk today about my current research on the historical archaeology of French Catholic mission sites in Mangareva. And of course, the other side of the equation being research into the ways that Mangarevan people, Polynesian people, adapted to these sorts of colonial incursions and interventions in their lives. I've just been in the field. I got back from French Polynesia a little bit over a week ago, but it's been really nice to kind of sit down and synthesize the data that I collected while I was there. And what I'm going to do today is basically take everyone on a very brief kind of whirlwind tour through the Islands, specifically focusing on buildings such as the one in this picture, these sort of stone, both volcanic stone and coral limestone, constructions that were built between the 1830’s, 1840’s and the turn of the 20th century. And just a quick, in case anyone did manage to tune in, a quick 'Ena koe' to any friends from Mangareva who were able to join us this afternoon.

As Robin said, my work sits within historical archaeology in Oceania, which is a growing field but growing in quite uneven ways. So, in places like New Zealand and Australia, you have kind of global leaders in theory and method in the field, with work taking place within the context of trying to understand the recent past, in these colonial settler societies. Since the 1980’s, there have been major studies in Hawaii by people like Pat Kirch, Jim Bayman and Peter Mills looking at the transformations of that kingdom and eventually colony of the United States. Since between the kind of 1780’s and the early 1900’s and then elsewhere, the development of historical archaeology has been much more uneven. So, I've done some work in Vanuatu, mostly looking at mission sites, as having my colleagues, Matthew Spriggs and Stuart Bedford. Christophe Sand has done work on and off during the 1990’s and beyond in New Caledonia. In a lot of the Pacific where there's historical archaeology done, it tends to be kind of, “battlefield or conflict archaeology”, looking at the remains of the Second World War. Although Sandra Monton from Spain has been working with a team on the archaeology of Spanish colonialism in Guam, including some quite early sites, which is very exciting. There's a little bit of research from Fiji. There've been bits and pieces from Polynesia, including French Polynesia and Samoa. But really there are a lot of places where no one has actually done anything with, what in some areas is pretty remarkable colonial archaeological heritage that simply hasn't been documented even to a relatively basic standard, let alone investigated with much depth.

So, my current work is going to be focusing on the islands in Mangareva and just to clarify, there's a specific island called Mangareva. Like in Hawaii, we use that to refer to the group though people also will talk about the Îles Gambier or the Gambier Islands, which includes both the main islands in the Mangareva group and the Atoll of Temoe, which is about 40 or 50 kilometres away. As you can see that sort of triangle is the rough boundary of French Polynesia in terms of, you know, if you're trying to put a scale to it, we're talking about an area roughly the size of continental Europe. And the Mangareva group sits at the far south-eastern part of that corner of the triangle, roughly 1700 kilometres southeast of Tahiti, if people know where that is.

The Islands themselves are remnants of an ancient volcanic caldera that has since sunk into the sea, surrounded as you can see by what people refer to as motu or coral atoll environment. So, these are sort of low limestone uplifted coral reef that provide the boundary for the lagoon. And then the islands, the main islands are remnants of volcanic peaks that once existed in this region. And my research focuses on the four largest islands, Mangareva, Aukena, Akumaru, and Taravai, which are the islands where the missionaries focused their activities over the course of the 19th century, and which would have been the largest kind of populated islands in the group, although throughout the Mangareva islands, we find evidence for human occupation during a pre-European period.

So just a bit of timeline, so people have some context. Recent work by Patrick Kirch, Guillaume Molle and others has dated an initial kind of “discovery” of Mangareva by Polynesian navigators around 850 CE based on a high precision uranium thorium date on a coral abrader that was found in a rock shelter site. But the main kind of evidence for human settlement, modification of the environment, and really making any kind of major impact on the landscape comes a couple of hundred years later. Mangareva was always from an agricultural perspective a bit marginal in terms of the classic kind of Polynesian agricultural regime focusing on crops like taro and yams and a bit later on Kumala or sweet potato. But nonetheless it was occupied for many, many centuries, people adapted into the landscape, they constructed a system of Marae, villages, agricultural sites, etc. And then in the end of the 18th century they have the first real direct kind of contact with Europeans with the visit of the Duff, a British ship. The name Îles Gambier is after the patron of this particular voyage of exploration and discovery. As the sort of 18th century drew to a close Europeans shift from trying to figure out what is in the Pacific to then kind of beginning to think about what to do with it. And you know in the kind of colonial mindset of the times, they basically focused on commerce, what kind of economic exploitation can they eke out of the region and also saving souls through missionary activities which became the two main kind of foci of European imperial powers during the 19th century. The main players in this region being Great Britain and France. And in general, British missionary endeavours which have been the focus of most of the existing research in Oceania supported Protestant missionaries and French endeavours supported Catholic missionaries. And there was very kind of intense competition as one can imagine between those two operations. So, in the 1830’s after failing to establish a foothold in the society islands partly because the British Protestants had beaten them to it, a group of French Catholic priests belonging to the order of Sacrés-Cœurs or Sacred Hearts also called the “Picpus” brothers arrived in Mangareva. After establishing a foothold in the islands, they set about constructing a series of stone houses, churches, cathedrals and schools. During this period, they identified a high chiefly lineage on the island of Mangareva and established a “royal dynasty” under Maputeoa. And in addition to changing these kind of patterns of say worship and education and domestic life, the missionaries also encouraged a shift towards focus on the economic production of what in French is called nacre, in English is kind of confusingly called Pearl Shell. But when you're thinking about it think not the shiny little ball but the pearl shell. Pinctada is the genus of this particular shell for all of you shellfish fans. It's actually the shell itself, the shiny surface of the shell itself, or the “mother of Pearl” that was used for various things like inlay and buttons and other kinds of commodities that were sold widely in the 19th century global market.

So, what I did last month as a kind of preliminary formal recording and survey of the colonial stone buildings across the islands over a span of two weeks was to document a little over a hundred different structures. As you can see from this table the largest concentrations of buildings are on the islands of Mangareva and Akamaru and we'll show you a few examples of that in a minute. About half of what I recorded were houses which makes sense that's the most common kind of structure that you'd expect in this kind of assemblage of buildings, but I also documented a number of churches, schools structures, towers that were built for the royal family and also in a few cases some traditional structures that were either incorporated into the fabric of colonial buildings or continued to be used into the colonial period.

I'm going to go through each of the main islands very rapidly, starting with Akamaru. The missionaries established their first settlement in the Bay of Tokani in the 1830’s, this was really mostly abandoned after a few years or construction activities focused elsewhere because the Bay itself is a bit exposed to inclement weather but they did set about constructing structures like this. This is the ruin of a stone house that was kind of the typical form followed throughout Mangareva although as we'll see there's quite a bit of variability within the designs of the houses themselves and for a sense of scale you can see one of my research assistants here who's probably about, what, 90 centimetres high. So, these are fairly substantial structures, most of them fall into kind of 12 metres by six metres in area, some of which have stone gable for the roof line and some of which like this one are relatively flat but would have still had a gabled roof built on top.

After moving away from Tokani, the missionaries focused their activities and the kind of missionary construction activities on the other side of the island each of these GPS points here represents a structure of some kind again mostly houses with the exception of this blue area which we can sort of ignore for this talk, that's a previously undocumented agricultural field system which is very exciting but has to be saved for another day. And what's interesting about the layout of this settlement is they essentially built a main avenue and then it's you know crossed in the form of a cross, fairly obvious kind of Catholic spatial symbolism in the layout of it that goes from the pier where the boat is still used as the main landing today, down to the main church of Notre Dame de La Paix and along the main avenue is this kind of series of stone houses but also some school buildings and other structures. So this is just a view of what you see as you're coming in towards the main kind of religious enclave. So there's the church which I mentioned, the Presbytère or Priests’ house which still features intact 19th century timbers, the kitchen which has an adjacent spring house, toilet block, and this kind of remarkable bread oven built out of two enormous volcanic boulders. One of which is sort of flat on top and the other one has been carved into this kind of hollow dome form which would have been used for baking bread, an essential missionary activity all over the world but particularly you know for the French there's this sort of cultural tradition of le pain or la baguette being sort of an essential part of both daily routine and also really kind of people's culinary identity. In fact, baguette for UNESCO followers was recently placed on the intangible heritage list in 2022.

These are just again some photos to show both the variability in housing design, so different kinds of archways and the doors, different arrangements of windows but also the variability in conservation. So some of these buildings are very well preserved, they maintain the façade, they maintain most of the plaster, others might be very overgrown, often as in many parts of Oceania vegetation poses a major problem from a kind of conservation perspective and that's one of the things I'm going to be working with people on in the next few years is developing a more systematic and thorough approach to how to take care of this really remarkable unique kind of landscape in Polynesia. And finally as an interesting sidebar, this remarkable example of adaptive reuse which was a very large house either for the king or for Père Laval depending on who you ask that was never finished in the 19th century but within the last kind of 15 or 20 years has been renovated and is now lived in by a Mangarevan family. I'm not saying this is you know the approach to take with all of these houses but it's an interesting way that people have kind of adapted them into contemporary life. And finally, in Akamaru there's a really well preserved 19th century cemetery with headstones dating all the way back to the 1840’s that again is an important heritage site that will get some attention and be documented separately in the next few years because obviously it's a slightly more sensitive kind of approach that needs to be taken when working with people's ancestors and where they lie.

Moving to Aukena, the main focus on Aukena was the building of a boy's school and the relocation of young men to the island to get educated “properly” by their Catholic teachers and one of the features on the island is this kind of remarkable watchtower set both to see passing ships coming in and out because even today Mangareva is not visited extremely often by passing ships of various descriptions but also to keep an eye on the comings and goings of young Polynesian boys, who may or may not as we'll see in a little bit, have been occasionally sneaking off to visit the girls school on the neighbouring island of Mangareva. The main religious architecture on the island is this small church dedicated to Saint Raphael and adjacent to that is another Presbytère or Priests’ house interestingly built over the foundation of a more ancient Marae or Polynesian sacred structure and again this is a fairly typical Catholic activity of building their architecture on top of existing sacred architecture as a way of kind of asserting control over an environment that they're in the process of colonizing. The school is a fairly remarkable two-story structure, it's one of the largest ones built in the entirety of Mangareva and I'll just point to a few interesting interior features. One is that sort of diagonal scar which was the staircase going up and in fact the red rectangle in the lower right is the beam slot for the other sort of bit of the staircase. So this is the main kind of central entrance hallway with doors on both ends and then there would have been a staircase up and what it looks like is that the ground floor had kind of offices and classrooms and then the dormitory would have been on the upper floor which is again I think partly an efficient way of keeping track of who's coming and going, making sure everyone ends up where they're meant to be within the school. Nearby, not too far away, is a another one of these stone bread ovens so you get at least one of these or a few on each island and in each kind of missionary settlement. This one is kind of unique for having both a limestone milling stone for grinding and a volcanic stone that's been modified to have this rectangular groove for grinding both flour but apparently also oil in in some way. I'm still trying to figure out, that's a local tradition, and I'm trying to find kind of the documentary evidence to explain it.

Moving to Taravai very quickly, you can see there's ongoing kind of conservation work that's happening in a slightly clandestine fashion, but restoration of these buildings is periodical and this is the Church of St. Benedict which is another one of these kind of remarkable elaborate church structures very ornate both in the exterior and the interior. The roof tiles which had been replaced with roofing metal recently bear stamps that show import from Toulouse and have this kind of amazing little cherub figure which might or might not be a kind of apotropaic device. It's quite common in buildings like these from kind of ancient Greece until now to put little faces and things to sort of protect the building and there's this memorial archway from the Pères des Sacrés-Cœurs built in the 19th century and as you can see again had a recent coat of whitewash but it has also deteriorated sometime between the 1980’s and today particularly on that left hand side.

And now finally the largest island of Mangareva, this is home to the main cathedral in the islands and interestingly the cathedral was built on top of this Maison des idoles or house of the idols that shows up in various 19th century sketches and things. As often happens there's a big iconoclasm in the 1830’s to 1840’s. The idols are cast out, they're largely burned or thrown into the sea, although a number of remarkable specimens are collected largely by the Catholic priests and sent back to Europe, where they end up in various collections in places like France and the Vatican. And then this large cathedral becomes the main kind of focus of worship in the islands right up until today and it was also renovated a few years ago with the funding for that renovation coming from local sources. Around the cathedral there's various houses including an Évêché, a Bishops house, because Mangareva was enough of a focus of Catholic activity to have its own bishop. There's another Priests house there's also the house of King Maputeoa’s uncle, Matua, and this structure which interestingly is marked in various documents as a lodging and workshop for the Frères tisserands that is sewers and weavers, so this was a building where apparently young men, mostly, were employed in making clothing for, I would imagine, both religious purposes and for just everyday use.

In the royal compound, there are things like an archway that was the sort of main entrance into the palace. A lot of stuff has been destroyed unfortunately because it's the main school in Rikitea today but they have maintained these different watchtowers that belong to the royal family and this structure you can see in the bottom centre is a stone walled compound that served both as a place for landing and launching the canoes of the royal family but also as a Polynesian fish pond, providing fish for the royal household. Speaking of food not too far away there's also this megalithic bread fruit pit for fermented bread fruit or popoe which again was part of the food for the royal family and then finally there's a site called Le Couvent, actually a girls’ school at a place called Rorou. Again, one of these megalithic bread fruit pits is located within the main compound, actually two of them there's a second one just off picture here. Inside one of the main structures, I don't know how well people will be able to see it, but there's this remarkable, there was a large fireplace so this is probably a kitchen and dining room for the girls in the school and the wall that had the fireplace also has this mural with columns, Ionic columns and amphorae as if it's a sort of Greek temple in the main kind of focus of the building. So I had Tristan Jones run a d-stretch, I don't know if that's any clearer, you kind of have to see it in person but it's an amazing example of this sort of artistic fluorescence within these missionary structures. There's another chapel/school building, still kind of figuring out a few details.

And finally on Mangareva itself more of these 19th century houses again in various states of conservation and with variability in terms of their architectural designs which I'll be investigating for the next four years. The other thing we'll be doing of course is a series of excavations to try to identify material culture but these are just a few examples of some sherds we found on the surface of what the French called faience in English these would be whitewares and a sewing machine that dates to the early 20th century and is a good reminder that people continued living in these houses in some cases until quite recently. And that is that thank you all for listening and I'll be happy to take any questions.


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