From Lapita to Liturgy: the archaeological and environmental history of the three millennia of human settlement of Aneityum, southern Vanuatu

A project undertaken at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, and supervised by Matthew Spriggs and Stuart Bedford

The project investigates the archaeological and environmental history of the 3000 years of human settlement on Aneityum Island, southern Vanuatu. It brings together a multidisciplinary team in collaboration with staff of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the local community of Anelcauhat village, Aneityum. The island has undergone extraordinary environmental change during its human occupation. Sites to be investigated include a recently-located 3000 year old colonizing site, a previously-investigated swamp which preserves an environmental history of the island to beyond the period of human arrival and the earliest standing structures in Melanesia, the Presbyterian Mission station which began in 1848, and its associated archaeological deposits. Archival records associated with the Mission establish a well-documented historical ‘end point’.


The initial objective is to define the extent and layout of the colonizing Lapita settlement of 3000 years ago. Evidence of change over time in terms of settlement pattern is also a high priority. The extent of the Mission settlement across the beach terrace and its interconnection with the indigenous community is another fundamental goal. This will also include a full investigation of missionary John Geddie’s 1852 house (the oldest standing European building in Melanesia) and the similarly early very large stone church of the 1860s. The finer detail of human impact on the island’s environment will be identified through the study of micro-botanical and macro-botanical remains. In the 1970s the Anauwau Swamp returned very rich deposits from a single core, including the then-oldest evidence (6000BP) for coconut in the Pacific. More extensive coring of the Swamp will be undertaken to gain a detailed record of pre-human arrival through to the establishment of the Mission in the mid-19th century.


With the support of the Aneityum Council of Chiefs the project will aid in preparing documentation for the nomination of the Island’s Christian Mission sites to the UNESCO World Heritage Register. Aneityum was the first fully-Christian island in the whole of Melanesia and has a rich heritage of sites reflecting the process of missionization.

Publications

Flexner, J.L. and Spriggs, M. (2015). Mission sites as indigenous heritage in Vanuatu. Journal of Social Archaeology,15(2):184-209.

Flexner, J.L., Spriggs, M.. Bedford, S and Abong, M. (2016). Beginning historical archaeology in Vanuatu: recent projects on the archaeology of Spanish, French and Anglophone colonialism. In S. Monton-Subias, M. Cruz Berrocal and A. Ruiz Martinez (eds) The Archaeology of Early Modern Spanish Colonialism, pp. 205-227. New York: Springer.

Bedford, S., Spriggs, M. and Shing, R.(2016). ‘By all means let us complete the exercise’: the 50 year search for Lapita on Aneityum, Southern Vanuatu, and implications for other “gaps” in the Lapita distribution. Archaeology in Oceania OO:1-9 (available in Early View, DOI:10.1002/arco.5100).

Figure 1. Test pit, Anelcauhat showing a sequence from Mission yard deposits at the top through to the 3000 year old Lapita occupation.

Figure 2. A Late Lapita pottery piece from Anelcauhat.

Figure 3. Foundations of the Mission Printing House, Anelcauhat. The earliest printing press in Melanesia.

Figure 4. Vanuatu National Museum staff, Richard Shing, gives a tour for Teruja High School students of the dig site.