Sunday, February 17, 2013

Easter Island and Its Statues, Part 2

A continuation of a look at Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and its statues, prompted by an email that the statues had recently been discovered to have bodies below ground. I mentioned last week that there would be 2 parts but that was optimistic. Part 3 will be posted next week. There may be a Part 4.  I find the island and its various aspects fascinating; hopefully, through these posts and otherwise, you may also so find.

The island and its inhabitants have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids, colonialism deforestation and precipitous population declines. Many of these aspects have had an effect on, or been intertwined with, the island’s famous statues. 

The Statues: 
  • There are 887 statues and they are known as moai
  • They were carved between the years 1250 and 1500. 
  • The moai were made at a quarry inside an extinct volcano, the material for construction being tuff, a compressed, solidified volcanic ash. This material was already soft and, in addition, was wet prior to and during sculpting. There are also 13 moai carved from basalt, , 22 from trachytes and 17 from fragile red scoria. 
  • The quarry is named Rano Raraku. There are 394 complete and incomplete moai at the quarry. Only one quarter of the moai were installed. Half still remain at the quarry. 

Pics of the quarry and unfinished moai 

Map showing the location of the quarry and the completed moai. 

  • Numerous moai were worked on at any one time. A single moai took a team of five or six men approximately one year to complete. 

  • The largest moai, named “Paro”, is nearly 10m (32 feet) long and weighs 82 tons. 

  • One unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been approximately 21 metres (69 ft) tall with a weight of about 270 tons. Experts believe it would have been too heavy and too large to move. 

Eyes and Hats: 
  • Archaeologists discovered in 1979 that the deep eye sockets of some of the moai were designed to hold white coral with pupils made of black obsidian or red scoria. It is believed that the colouring of the eyes of some of the moai was reflective of a Rapa Nui hierarchy, referred to in greater detail below. 
  • About 100 of the moai have hats or topknots, called pukao, made from red scoria, a light red volcanic stone that was obtained from a another quarry, Puna Pau. The pukao are cylindrical with a dent underneath to facilitate being balanced on top of the moai heads. The pukao varied in size in proportion to the moai they were to adorn, some up to 3 metres in height and 3 metres in diameter. It is believed that the pukao represented dressed hair or headdresses of red feathers worn by chiefs throughout Polynesia. It is still not known how they were raised to the top of the moai. 
Re-erected tuff moai at Ahu Tahai with restored pukao and replica eyes 

Other markings and carvings: 
  • The material from which nearly all the moai are sculpted, tuff, is a soft compressed volcanic ash. This made it easy to carve and subsequently smooth with pumice, but it also has made the moai susceptible to erosion. The moai carved from basalt and those protected by burial reveal detail carved on the backs and posterior surfaces. 
  • The designs carved on the moai were culturally linked to the traditional tattooing that was carried out by the Rapa Nui until repressed by missionaries in the 19th century. 
  • In 1868 the British ship HMS Topaze visited Easter Island and took one of the moai back to England, a unique example in that it is one of the 16 moai that was carved from basalt rather than tuff. It is named Hoa Hakananai'a which, in Rapa Nui, means “stolen friend”. Measuring about 2.5m in height and showing a torso with shrunken arms in addition to the head, it is now in the British Museum. Curiously the body was painted red and white when first observed but the paint was washed off during transportation to England. The statue wears a loincloth (known as a maro) and the back is richly decorated with carvings relating to the island’s Birdman cult (refer comments later). 

Transporting the statues: 
  • The manner of transporting the statues has not been positively identified. It was previously thought that they were moved horizontally on timber logs, that process denuding the island of its trees. More recently a team of archaeologists demonstrated that a relatively small number of people could make the moai “walk” to their destinations by the use of ropes, a hypothesis supported by fallen moai alongside the roads that were used for transporting them. See a video of a moai replica being made to walk at: 

  • Another website claims that the walking method was explained by a Rapa Nui guide and that its use was facilitated by the bases being curved rather than flat: 

  • A very good and detailed examination of the walking method, and of the raising of the statues, appears at: 

  • The movement of the larger statues by “walking”, over varied terrain, has been disputed by others. The precise method remains a mystery but it is also possible that a combination of methods was used.

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