Some thoughts on the past and future of archaeological mapping in Polynesia

By Dr. James Flexner, The Australian National University

In a thought-provoking paper, Bowden and McOmish (2011) identify a “British tradition” of field archaeology, which they apply specifically to the careful mapping of archaeological earthworks, a practice that they claim is unique in its capturing of not only space, but time in the landscape. Many archaeologists will take issue with the idea that only British archaeologists do “field archaeology”, but I think this misses the point of the paper. Rather, I take this as a challenge to further explore the disciplinary histories of the regions in which we work. In doing so, we might understand a bit better why archaeological practice takes the form that it does, and we might uncover some of the unstated assumptions behind both theory and method in many of the regions in which we work.

Mapping a Polynesian landscape.
Mapping a Polynesian landscape (Photo by Robert Flexner).

Is there a “Polynesian tradition” of field archaeology, and how can we trace its evolution through time? Before the 1950s, archaeologists assumed there wasn’t much of interest in Polynesia. The region for the most part lacked the pottery that in the pre-radiocarbon era was the mainstay for archaeological dating. Most archaeologists thought it was thus impossible to say anything about the origin and spread of Polynesian culture. One result was a focus on documenting and mapping stone structures throughout the region.

Kenneth Emory (e.g. 1928, 1934) believed that you could trace the migration and development of Polynesian cultures through the variability of ritual sites called marae in many Polynesian languages (heiau in Hawaiian). Emory’s maps were often schematic in nature, interpreting ritual spaces to show their most important features. (for an example of this style, see Plate I from Danielsson 1952). The arrangements of stone features were used as evidence for Emory’s theories of Polynesian origins and migrations.

Emory’s Native Hawaiian research assistant, Henry E. P. Kekahuna, produced plan maps of sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands in the 1950s that foreshadowed the state of the art for Polynesian archaeology (a selection of these stunning maps have been made available online by the B.P. Bishop Museum). Kekahuna recorded Hawaiian stone construction in great detail, often relating specific features to his knowledge of Hawaiian ethnohistory, which is an ongoing practice in Hawaiian archaeology. Kekahuna also included relevant ethnobotanical details on the maps, reflecting an early interest in environmental archaeology, which would characterise much of the work to come from the 1960s onwards.

The development of the “settlement pattern approach”, pioneered by Roger Green in the 1960s (e.g. Green and Davidson, eds. 1969; Green et al. 1967), was something of a revolution for Polynesian archaeology. The theoretical development is accompanied by a notable turn in the representation of archaeological landscapes, as the focus shifted from individual ritual sites to entire landscapes, including agricultural features, domestic sites, and the temples and shrines that had been the staple of Polynesian archaeology.

As the settlement pattern approach developed over the last 50 years in Polynesia, hand drawn plan maps produced in the field have become the standard, based on close observations recording a range of features in great detail, often down to the individual stone. These plans often show the overlapping layers of human modification of the landscape, what Polynesian archaeologists sometimes call the palimpsest of stone structures going from the present to the past, which can be read from the map.

Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.
Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.

In the 21st century, there has been a shift back to more schematic mapping style, largely correlating with technological shifts, notably the nearly ubiquitous use of hand-held GPS units for archaeological survey. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as GPS has allowed for the recording of thousands of previously undocumented sites and features throughout Polynesia. However, if we rely solely on these schematic maps, or if we record these landscapes too hastily, we risk missing out on important features that can tell us new things about the Polynesian past.

We should be careful not to overlook the importance of being able to read the palimpsest of features in the landscape, especially in training future generations of Pacific archaeologists. Further, as Ballard (2013) points out, drawings, including maps, have an under-utilised potential as a tool for engaging in a dialogue with local communities about the work we do as anthropologists and archaeologists. This is where an understanding of our field mapping traditions becomes so important. If we recognise the crucial role that cartographic techniques have played in the evolution of our understanding of Polynesian archaeology, we will be better placed to use all of the technologies at our fingertips, the new alongside the old, for another century of exciting discoveries in the region.

Note of acknowledgement: My trip to Paris was funded by an Early Career Researcher Travel Award from the Australian National University. Colleen Morgan deserves my thanks for the invitation to guest-edit Then Dig. Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle organised the conference in Paris from which this post was distilled.


Ballard, Chris 2013 The Return of the Past: On Drawing and Dialogic History. The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology 14(2): 136-148.

Bowden, Mark, and David McOmish 2011 A British Tradition? Mapping the Archaeological Landscape. Landscapes 2:20-40.

Danielsson, Bengt 1952 A recently discovered marae in the Tuamotu Group. Journal of the Polynesian Society 61(3/4): 222-229.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1928 Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 12, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1934 Tuamotuan Stone Structures. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 118, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Green, Roger C., and Janet Davidson (editors) 1969 Archaeology in Western Samoa. Vol. 1, Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland.

Green, Roger C., Kaye Green, Roy A. Rappaport, Ann Rappaport, and Janet Davidson 1967 Archaeology on the Island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 51(2), American Museum of Natural History, New York.

The Story of a Set of Bamboo Picks

When pondering which of my archaeology tools are most important to me, I had a lot of choices (for example, I have used the same trowel since 1969). I admit that I get very attached to those digging tools that work well, but some have better stories than others. The tool that I have selected for this post is my set of “Perino picks.”

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Gregory Perino became fascinated not only with his encyclopedia-like knowledge of archaeology, but also with his ability to create the perfect archaeological tools. Having done much of my early field work in archaeology in the Lower Illinois River Valley and at Cahokia, hearing Perino’s name was a common occurrence (the man dug everywhere!), and I am delighted that I had the opportunity not only to talk with him, but to work with him at several sites. In particular, he visited me regularly when I excavated the Mississippian Moss Cemetery, and I had the opportunity to visit him in Tulsa when I incorporated the Mississippian Schild cemetery (which he excavated) into my dissertation, along with Moss. Greg always told me that his job was to find, excavate, and describe sites, but interpretation and fancy analyses were for students and academics. He was always happy to share.

Greg was an amateur archaeologist who trained himself to be a professional. He was astounding in his ability to find “cool” sites and artifacts, and his excavation pictures demonstrate his amazing ability to conduct beautiful excavations. He had his own little bulldozer, he created special sets of shovels and trowels and screens, and he invented the Perino probe, which was sprung steel with a little steel knob on the end. Greg used the probe to find sites and also to identify what he had found. Having been trained to use the Perino probe, I can attest that you can tell the difference between stone, ceramics, clay, bone, etc. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that I don’t own one.

Another tool I don’t own is one of Greg’s postmold cross-sectioners. It was an adapted shovel that was a little wider than 95% of any postmolds (or possible postmolds) you might find. With two cuts, he could cross-section the postmold, and determine whether it was real or a rodent burrow or something else. He loaned me the shovel for some work I had to do on a special project. It worked extremely well, and significantly sped up the process of excavation (we had about 100 possible postmolds to examine).

Two of my bamboo picks

When I was excavating the Moss cemetery in 1972, Greg was visiting Kampsville from Oklahoma, and came out to the site one day and announced that I did not have the right tools for the job. He then gave me several “Perino picks.” A Perino pick is a piece of bamboo about 6-8” long that he cut to various thicknesses, then carved to have a nice blunt point on one end and a nice beveled scraping edge on the other. You can easily work around and expose delicate artifacts and bone without risking harm to the items. I love those picks, and still use them today.

But, after Greg left to return home, another visitor decided that my supply of Perino picks was too limited. That visitor was the late Eugene Gray. Gene was a wonderful person who was an avid amateur archaeologist. He was happy to share information with professionals, and he very much wanted to learn how to do things properly. Gene also worked with Greg whenever the possibility arose. In any case, during Gene’s visit to Moss, he decided that I needed a broader range of Perino picks, and besides, he was trying to improve his ability to make these tools. I happily agreed, and Gene made me a set of picks that are similar to Greg’s, but are thinner and have a GG on them so that they can be clearly identified as distinct from Greg’s. In case you are wondering, the reason everyone was concerned about my toolkit was because we were finding significant numbers of whole pots at Moss, and no one wanted them harmed due to excavation.

My set of bamboo picks was complete, and to this day, I use them proudly and I loan them infrequently. Not only are they wonderful tools, but every time I use them I think of the two terrific field men who created them for me. In the years since, I have shown students how to create such picks, but I would never trade a new set for my originals – they were made with much knowledge and love by two remarkable archaeologists.