The main focus of the study will be the historical Ara Nui o Toi or Ara Metua, otherwise known as the back road.
“Hundreds of years ago, the greatest monument in all of Polynesia was the Ara Metua,” says professor Colin Richards from the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland.
He says research suggests the Ara Metua not only served a primary ritual or cosmological role in ancient times, but also acted as a day-to-day means of movement – structuring and ordering the location of adjacent buildings, including marae and other dwellings, paepae, koutu, and so on.
As a monumental circuit road, the Ara Metua provided a degree of order to the people of Rarotonga and the manner in which they encountered other people and places.
This is the third time the four archaeologists have visited the Cook Islands. Their trip was funded by the Cook Islands Ministry of Cultural Development. On their previous trip here, the team travelled to Aitutaki to map out areas of archaeological interest.
They have only recently finished similar research on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.
“Some of the research questions (from Rapa Nui) are relevant because of the shared Maori understandings and beliefs,” said professor Jane Downes, also from the University of Highlands and Islands.
The archaeologists are carrying out research on marae and other settlements that were established around the Ara Metua on Rarotonga. They hope to confirm whether or not the road was once continuous around the whole island, or split into sections.
CINews was at Arai Te Tonga marae last Thursday, as excavation began on the old Ara Metua.
“This is probably the best preserved sample of the Ara Metua in the whole of Rarotonga,” said Apai Mataiapo Kaumono William Framhein, referring to a section of land at Arai Te Tonga.
Framhein is the group’s local “caregiver” and helped to arrange discussions between the archaeologists, local elders and landowners. Last year, the archaeologists mapped out where the old road used to be, before being shifted in the 1980s. Pieces of bone, ancient tools such as adzes, and even burned plant matter will help the team discover what role the road played in Rarotonga’s history.
“One of the things we want to look at is just how it worked at the time,” said Richards. “There were accounts of (the road) once being paved with basalt, perhaps coral curbing, but we don’t know what date this was – we don’t know when it was done.”
Current estimates have Rarotonga being settled at around 875AD, but the visiting group of archaeologists – who will be based at the Arai Te Tonga excavation site for a week – hope that layer by layer they will be able to decipher enough clues to allow them to place an accurate date on when the very first settlement actually occurred.
It has been 50 years since the last major archaeological works were carried out on Rarotonga. Those involved this time around hope the research will add to local knowledge of the Ara Metua, as well as reigniting local interest in the once famed road.
“It’s really important because the Ara Metua is not called that for no reason – people have forgotten about its importance,” said Framhein.
If evidence is found linking the road to voyages throughout the Pacific, Framhein claims it has the potential to become a world heritage site. However, he says it’s more a matter of “curiosity” at this stage.
Part of the archaeologists’ research involves consideration of the potential economic impacts traditional monuments may bring to small island nations.
“We’re really interested in the role that archaeology or monuments can play in tourism. We’ve been working a lot in our own country, particularly in the Northern Isles of Scotland…in developing those aspects” said Downes.
However, Framhein says locals want to “rediscover their heritage” before considering any development of the Ara Metua as a tourist attraction.
He wants people to learn how to carry out the research themselves, to preserve the knowledge and help to make the Ara Metua a “living thing” once again.
All of those interested in the work being done by the archaeologists are invited to visit the excavation site at Arai Te Tonga Marae in Oa’oa. The team will be there until Thursday next week.