American and Micronesian experts and students working on two complementary U.S. Department of State programs to conserve and document cultural heritage in Micronesia have discovered evidence of complex agricultural and irrigation earthworks that could reshape Pacific Island history. These discoveries relate to Nan Madol, an abandoned city of islets built on a coral reef flat that was the center of Pohnpeian civilization until the seventeenth century. In addition to funding archeological work at Nan Madol, the Department of State is also working with the College of Micronesia to ensure that local understanding of the site and its cultural significance are central to interpreting these new discoveries. These projects celebrate the shared history and support stronger ties between the people and governments of the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), while also demonstrating the benefits of integrating scientific research and cultural diplomacy.
Located in one of the rainiest places on earth and built from basalt columns and boulders that would have required extensive labor resources to transport and assemble, Nan Madol has long been a site of fascination for Western explorers and writers who have described it in romantic and exotic language. Today, breadfruit and banana trees, along with other vegetation, dominate the site. Roots have dislodged the basalt and coral foundations of the islets and threaten to topple and destroy the structures. In the shallow channels between islets, mangroves grow mostly unchecked, making much of the site inaccessible. In 2016, UNESCO designated Nan Madol a World Heritage Site, placing it on its list of “World Heritage in Danger.”
In 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the FSM Robert Riley initiated a major grant request from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) because “the ninety-nine islands of Nan Madol represent a cultural treasure, but they are threatened by overgrowth.” Pulling back vegetation will not only help preserve the site, but allow for easier access by researchers and tourists, he stated on a ShareAmerica blog. The main purpose of the AFCP-funded project is to document Nan Madol and develop conservation, interpretation, and management plans for the site in cooperation with Micronesia’s Office of National Archives, Culture, and Historic Preservation. But at the time the project was funded, Ambassador Riley also asserted that a secondary objective of the project was to ascertain, using LiDAR, if there might not be features of the site that had been hidden over the ages by accretions of vegetation and/or soil.
In an effort to understand how water currents affect Nan Madol, AFCP grantee Cultural Site Research and Management Foundation of Baltimore, Maryland (CSRMF) performed a LiDAR survey of Nan Madol and the adjacent Temwen Island. LiDAR uses millions of light pulses to detect shapes and structures. By digitally removing vegetation from LiDAR images, archaeological features that are hidden by tree canopies and undergrowth can be revealed. Because of this use, LiDAR technology has become a game-changer for archaeology in the past decade. CSRMF were the first to use LiDAR at Nan Madol and Temwen and what they uncovered proved not only important to understanding water flow, but may explain how the civilization that built Nan Madol supported its population and concentrated its power.
According to Dr. Douglas Comer of CSRMF “analysis of LiDAR data produced surprising results, most notably imagery of an amazingly complex system of irrigated fields covering Temwen island, concealed by dense vegetation that has grown up since the site was abandoned approximately 400 years ago.” Although “the consensus among archaeologists has been that there was no intensification of agriculture in Micronesia by means of formal field systems,” and that fermented breadfruit was one of the only source of preserved foods, these fields suggest an early and complex cultivation of taro, which could have provided greater food security and the economic strength necessary for this Micronesian civilization to thrive. This discovery raises questions about accepted chronologies for human settlement and development in the Pacific.
In conjunction with the AFCP award, ECA also awarded a grant to the College of Micronesia (COM) for a pilot program developed by the Collaboratory, the Bureau’s innovation initiative. The grant identified a team of students who had been compiling oral histories of the country’s elders, and provided them with equipment and training to document and interpret the preservation of Nan Madol. This youth empowerment program has already seen positive results, giving Micronesian students experience and professional contacts. Professor Denise Oen, who’s supervising the project at COM, described how the filmmakers were asked to assist a professional crew who had come to the island to produce a separate documentary about Nan Madol. “Folks have been so wonderful with our students. Very respectful, very open to engaging with them on their own terms.”
But with CSRMF’s discovery on Temwen Island, the Collaboratory project has reaped additional benefits. In part because they are working with Micronesian youth, CSRMF has been able to access private land to verify at ground level the LiDAR discoveries made from the air. COM students are producing videos that will be incorporated into the eventual Nan Madol visitor center and will be shared with other audiences in the United States and across the Pacific islands. They insist that the project of compiling and curating these stories is inseparable from the physical work of preservation. “The way I see it, as long as we have something to see—Nan Madol—I would say that’s the crowning achievement of our culture,” said Pj Pedrus, one of the students participating in the Collaboratory project at the College of Micronesia. “As long as it’s there we’ll always have stories surrounding it. And if it erodes away like what’s being told. If we don’t have that, I think the stories will eventually fade away.”
According to Comer, the data from this project will prompt the next “thirty years of dissertations” on Micronesian culture and heritage. Because of this collaboration, some of that next generation of historical and archeological experts may already be doing the work of documenting and interpreting these discoveries.
About the Author: Adam R. Shapiro, Ph.D. serves as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.