Radiocarbon testing challenges understanding of ancient Hawaiian architecture

Aug 01, 2006
Radiocarbon testing challenges understanding of ancient Hawaiian architecture
An aerial view of a large war temple (Loaloa) on Maui. Courtesy Michael Kolb and Northern Illinois University

The development of monumental architecture and social complexity on the Hawaiian island of Maui occurred over a span of at least 500 years, according to the most detailed study to date on the antiquity of the island's extensive temple system. The findings, in the August issue of Current Anthropology, challenge previous conceptions of ancient Hawaiian civilization by identifying cycles of temple construction that coincide with politically charged periods of warfare and island consolidation.

"Because the islands are relatively isolated from the rest of the world, the development of monumental architecture and complex society in Hawaii is of keen interest to archaeologists," writes Michael Kolb (Northern Illinois University), who spent more than a decade locating and excavating temple sites. "In many ways, Maui represents an excellent test case for state development. Its monumental architecture is directly linked to economic, political, and ritual development, not unlike the most famous early civilizations, such as the Maya or ancient Eqyptians."

Kolb conducted radiocarbon-dating analyses on samples from forty ruins on the island of Maui, including several newly discovered temples. The radiocarbon dates indicate the earliest temples were built in the 13th century, with construction continuing into the early 19th century. Prior research had indicated that Maui's temples, known as heiau, were built within a span of decades near the turn of the 17th century.

Kolb's study also identifies an important shift in temple construction from open-air temples used for ancestral worship to enclosed, more elaborate temples used for sacrificial offerings to war gods. Large temples often covered more area than a football field and stood 40 feet in height.

"The Hawaiian civilization lacked ceramics, which is typically why radiocarbon dating is relied upon by scientists," says Kolb. "Before a temple was built, the land would be set ablaze to clear it from vegetation, leaving behind charcoal remains. We also were able to gather samples for dating from the sites of ancient ovens and bonfires."

The ancient people of Maui stacked lava rocks to form the foundation of the platform temples, often built on the faces of cliffs or other high points on the island. The more elaborate, terraced temples were adorned with altars, oracle towers, offering pits, and god or ancestral images carved from wood or stone.

"Oftentimes, in a show of economic might, a conquering chief would remodel, build additions to, and rededicate a rival's temples," explains Kolb. "Many of the early structures were modified or new ones were built with enclosures on top. Access was limited to reward loyal constituents, and sacrificial worship became more of a focus."

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Ancient seashell coloration patterns revealed using ultraviolet light

Related Stories

Karnak excavation yields 38 artifacts

Mar 09, 2015

The Centre franco-égyptien d'étude des temples de Karnak (CNRS/Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities) has just completed the excavation of a favissa, a pit discovered in early December 2014 near the ...

Florentine basilica gets high-tech physical

Feb 26, 2015

Late last year, two University of California, San Diego students set out for Florence, Italy, to diagnose a patient that had no prior medical record, couldn't be poked or prodded in any way, and hadn't been ...

Shaping up our 'soundscapes' can improve our lives

Feb 10, 2015

We live in an increasingly noisy world. Since even low-level noise can affect quality of life, new tools to deal with noise are welcome. "Auralisation", the audio equivalent of visualisation, is now helping ...

Recommended for you

Complete camel skeleton unearthed in Austria

7 hours ago

Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation uncovered a complete camel skeleton in Tulln, Lower Austria. The camel, which was dated to the time of the Second Ottoman War in the 17th century, most likely ...

100-million-year-old scale insect practiced brood care

12 hours ago

Scientists at the University of Bonn, together with colleagues from China, UK and Poland, have described the oldest evidence of brood care in insects: it is in a female scale insect with her young that is encased in amber ...

Discovering missing body parts of ancient fossils

Mar 31, 2015

Certain specimens of the fossil Dickinsonia are incomplete because ancient currents lifted them from the sea floor, a team of researchers led by paleontologists at the University of California, Riverside has fo ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.