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Excavating the sanctuary at Phylakopi


Making a new TV show, Islands Out of Time
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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My thinking on that was actually carried further forward by the next television experience because the film about radiocarbon dating which had got the rather fancy but quite apposite title, "The Tree That Put The Clock Back". David Collison said to me, well, that was fine, that had been a successful film, what shall we do next? Shall we do a follow up? So I thought that would be a good idea and the first thing that came into my mind was the Aegean because I'd been doing - working on the origins of Aegean civilisation and would have something to say on that, but then I - I realised that to go to the Aegean wouldn't really be very interesting since I went there several times a year anyway, and I asked myself where would be more interesting to go and I thought, well, if we're talking about monument building, there are some very interesting monuments in the Pacific so I said - I think, David, I think we ought to go to Easter Island and he didn't bat an eyelid. I was slightly trying it on. Oh, that sounds very interesting, and so I already knew something about Easter Island and the obvious thing everybody knows is that there are these great monuments with statues and, indeed, they do pose the same very general problem, how on earth do you have these impressive monuments in a remote and rather small place like Easter Island, and it's the same question, in a way, or a similar question, how do you get monuments being created and that is of course why Easter Island has been the location for many so fantasies and legends, sort of Lost Atlantis, all that, the Lost Continent of Mu, all that sort of thing, just because it seems a little remarkable that people in these simple communities should be building great monuments. So it really is a problem in social archaeology, so there was a serious point behind the suggestion and then I suggested that what we ought to do was use Easter Island as the example of monument building but the Easter Island society, as you know as well or better than I do, Paul, collapsed so that today there isn't very much of original social structures to be seen on Easter Island whereas there are other Polynesian societies, particularly Tonga, where the previous chiefdom society still survives because the ruler of Tonga at the time of Captain Cook and subsequently, wasn't abolished or chased away or the society didn't collapse through disease as it did in Easter Island, and the King of Tonga at the time, a very prosperous man, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, he was a descendent of the rulers of Tonga before Captain Cook ever got there and so the kingdom of Tonga has institutions, many of which are handed down from the chiefdom society which Captain Cook actually observed and saw it working very well. So I did get to know Captain Cook's writings and of course there are some wonderful illustrations. You see the ceremony of the great inasi which was a great offering ceremony on Tonga. That's beautifully illustrated in - in Cook's account of his voyages, and there were other writings. There was a cabin boy called Mariner, William Mariner, who was shipwrecked on Tonga and wrote an account, he was the first white person to live on Tonga, he was, I think, the chief on the island he landed on had just lost his son and he was rather adopted as if he was the son of the chief and for that reason he survived. And he wrote an account which was published in the early 19th century, where he gave a lot of very interesting details about life in Tonga which were then pooh-poohed for many years as being sheer fantasy but when anthropologists actually got to work on Tonga, it turned out that just about everything he said seemed to make sense, and so there were very good accounts of the society of Tonga and it was a chiefdom society and it was a centralised society and you could see in that context how a chiefdom can happen in a society which is from a subsistence point of view rather simple without a great deal of trade and the power is concentrated in the hands of the chief and this is well known in anthropology, the Polynesian chiefdoms, that it was possible to think in similar terms, use that as an analogy, for the monuments of the British Isles of the Neolithic period. So that was the underlying idea so we started off filming in Tonga and we went off to the Island of Vava’u and the chief, or rather, the king, had given us an introduction to the chief, the Honourable Tui Afitu there and had really arranged that we should visit there so we spent a week filming. We lived in the village of Makere which was his village, I stayed with him and his family and the rest of the crew and Magnus and David Collison were distributed around other houses, and we did a lot of filming of village life which illustrated one point very well, namely that archaeologically you find almost nothing because almost everything is perishable. The houses are beautifully built but they're built out of the local organic materials, there are very few stone artefacts in contemporary Tongan society, there are a few sort of metates and grinders and so on. The clothes they wear, or the traditional clothes they wore, were made from bark cloth so you have the wooden bark cloth beaters and they're beautifully decorated so we were able to film all of this very effectively and the chief is very much respected. There are occasional very formal ceremonies, the great kava ceremony, where you sit drinking kava but in a very strictly prescribed order. Well, this is very much what Captain Cook had described, saying that, Captain Cook was saying the formalities in Tongan society are just as high as the formalities in English royal society of his own day which was the time of King George III. So, we were able to film that really very effectively and I think it made the point very well. Then we went on to Easter Island for a week and looked at the Great Monuments there, the Image Ahu and were able to imagine how those were built by a society rather like the Tongan chiefly society, which I think is broadly correct and then for the end of the programme, we went back to the UK, we went to Wayland Smithy which is an English Megalith, and just speculated a little on whether such a society could be responsible for - for such monuments. I think since that time, a lot of British archaeologists said, no, no, we don't need chieftains, and rather pooh-poohed the concept of chiefdom and in some ways they're right, we don't know that British society, English society, at that time was organised in a such a way, although a monument like Stonehenge would have needed many millions of work hours to construct so there must have been some mechanism of mobilisation, some social centralisation so the idea wasn't a foolish one, but at its time, I think it was a valid one. If you were trying to say how did monuments like this come about, the answer was to appeal to social mechanisms that are not reliant on diffusion from some remote place, or anything very elaborate, they're just allowing for mobilisation procedures in agricultural societies with quite a high population density and so it made perfectly good sense, I think, and certainly it was fun to do the filming. It was "Islands Out of Time", you always get a rather attractive title for the programme so that became "Islands Out of Time", and it was a very interesting experience to think through the arguments and then see them exemplified in this way, and one did learn a lot. I mean the principles of hospitality, we had lunch in a different part of the village each day and the village was divided into segments and each part of the village competed with the other part to lay on this marvellous feast so there was roast sucking pig and wonderful fish and shellfish cooked in umu, earth ovens, and so on, and then the music was marvellous because there were great Polynesian traditions of song which the missionaries tried to suppress but which came back again, and the dancing was wonderful. Dancing generally in lines, not twos and twos, but rather ceremonial dancing in lines so all of that was a great experience and in the evening every day we would repair to the village centre, the village large hut, really, and then they would be singing at us and we therefore decided we had to do something back so we - Magnus is quite good so we'd be putting on Loch Lomond or something like that, and then we thought of rounds and I remember one evening we astonished them because they sing very well and they sing a lot of hymns so they're used to singing in harmony but they never had a round before and I remember we started off with "London's Burning" and so we started with that and they were listening politely and then when the next lot came in, there was a big of a hubbub because they thought they we were messing it up and I remember the wonderment that just gradually spread through the community of Vava’u when they realised that the round was deliberately constructed in that way and so that was another occasion when the camera crew and all concerned had some very convivial evenings. Magnus Magnusson, of course, was a very convivial person so that was a good field location but the underlying - the underlying story, I think, was a valid one and though of course it would have been a mistake, perhaps it was a mistake, to imply the notion of chiefdom too specifically, to infer the notion of Polynesian chiefdom, there was at that time a necessity of saying, look, it really is possible to have great monuments in simple agricultural communities and here's one we can show you, and I think at that level it was a very successful film.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 10 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009