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Lapita: a view from the East.

By Simon Best. New Zealand Archaeological Association Monograph 24, Auckland, 2002. ISBN 0-9597915-7-4/ISSN 0111-5715. Pp. 113. NZD45 + postage.

Simon Best has packed a great deal into his slim volume. It is written in the terse, clipped language typical of any conversation with Simon. This style is a strength because it allows the framework of his complex argument to stay in the foreground. It is never obscured by too much detail or diversion. Few of us have the discipline for such tight presentation.

In his monograph Best boldly attempts to drag "Lapita" out of its Pacific frog pond into a wider academic conversation, his implicit point being that if we look for cross-cultural regularities in socio-cultural process, Lapita has something to contribute to world archaeology, and insights from other parts of the world can inform Lapita debates. This is not, however, a return to the universal laws of 1960s new archaeology. Rather, Best is interested in whether similarities in processes of socio-political and religious change can be traced across widely differing cultures and regions, by identifying distinctive artefact signatures, indicative of specific socio-cultural processes.

The temporal and geographical range of Best's argument is vast, taking in the origins of Lapita in Southeast Asia, Western Lapita, Eastern Lapita, the late prehistoric and early historic period in Fiji and, surprisingly, Islamic carpet decoration in North Africa and the Middle East. His analytical focus is, in contrast, narrowed to a single artefact type: decorated Lapita pottery. Such a narrow focus may be a weakness, as it is hard to see how Lapita can be understood in isolation from the plainware component of the pottery assemblages. To be fair though, Best is attempting so much here it would be churlish to dwell on potential limitations.

There are two strands to Best's argument. The first concerns the identification of cross-cultural regularities in the nature of decorative systems and the way they change. After a brief review of how the Lapita decorative system has been analyzed to date, Best mores directly to the Fijian island of Lakeba which he knows well. He compares the archaeology of the two ends of the Lakeba sequence, highlighting similarities in the form, decoration and uses of pottery in the two periods. He then tunas to the origins of the Lapita decorative system, again drawing out striking similarities with both early and late Fijian pots, particularly in the use of anthropomorphic designs. Best argues that these commonalities are so extensive and striking they can only be explained as similar responses to similar situations. He concludes this section by suggesting that the pots themselves are incidental and what we need to keep our eye on is the decoration system as it changes over time and space, and moves between mediums. At this point Best introduces the oriental carpets, examining the way certain popular motifs have simplified and transformed over both time and space in response to changes in carpet production and use.

In the latter half of the monograph Best develops the second strand of hid argument: that these regularities observed in the various decorative systems stem from similarities their religious roles in the different societies. He develops this idea by revisiting each of the decorative systems already discussed, weaving back and forth between them.

As Spriggs (2002:55) has already commented, Best's argument is subtle and to fully appreciate it requires careful reading of the full text. Whether time proves either strand of his argument "true" or "false" may not matter, for the degree to which the argument may be said "to work" may not be its primary contribution. Perhaps more important is the way Best has opened Lapita to broader debate. Whatever future research comes up with, Best's brave leap from the confines of the Lapita pond in search of cross-cultural insights and a wider theoretical framework will ensure a lasting legacy.


Spriggs, M. 2002. They've grown accustomed to your face. In S. Bedford, C. Sand and D. Burley (eds), Fifty Years in the Field: Essays in Honour and Celebration of Richard Shutler Jr's Archaeological Career, pp.51-7. New Zealand Archaeological Association Monograph, 25.

YVONNE MARSHALL University of Southampton
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Author:Marshall, Yvonne
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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