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New Lapita pottery finds from Kolombangara, western Solomon Islands.


A new surface assemblage of stylistically Late Lapita pottery has been recorded on Kolombangara. This report describes this assemblage and how it fits into a regional context.

Keywords: Lapita, Kolombangara, Solomon Islands


Kolombangara is a part of the high volcanic New Georgia islands in Western Solomons, located between New Georgia to the east and Vella Lavella to the west (Figure 1). The island itself is a dormant 1760m high volcano about 30km in diameter. Previous archaeological work on Kolombangara is limited. Late prehistoric sites and early contact sites were recorded by Kirch, Rosendahl and Yen during a survey of the Ndughore Valley in 1971 (Kirch 2000:134; Yen 1976). Further work was undertaken as part of a National Survey of sites where Kolombangara was visited by archaeologists at least five times between 1976 and 1981 (Miller 1979, Keopo 1981). No Lapita sites were found and no pottery sites on the intertidal mudflats had been recorded.


Apart from intermittent coral fringing reefs, both active and uplifted of Holocene age, the island is almost entirely Quarternary volcanic, typically consisting of stratified ash deposits, basalt flows and pyroclastic sediments. In the southwest some secondary eruptions occurred resulting in smaller peaks studding the main flanks of the much higher central mountain. In a few small locations these pushed up underlying sedimentary basement deposits some kilometres inland. The most common rock of the island is olivine basalt with hornblende andesite (Dunkerly 1986:16). Intrusive domes of hornblende dacite is also found in the southwest flanks of Kolombangara (Dunkerly 1986: 20).

Location of pottery

Scales found pottery at several locations during his ongoing anthropological work (Figure 2). While most of the pottery was imported from nearby Choiesul, that presented here has affinities with Lapita ware and was found in the vicinity of two current settlements: Poitete and Tan'huka. A local resident, Teu Zingihite, cognizant of Lapita pottery alerted us to the sherds at Tan'huka. At Poitete we stumbled across the sherds while looking for strand vegetation.


At Poitete, the sherds were found in a small open intertidal mud flat behind a slightly more seaward patch of high mangrove and pandanus. Low mangroves in swamp also extended immediately behind the area the sherds were found. At low tide the sherd-bearing mud is exposed, while at high tide the mud is submerged by about 0.5 metres or more of water. No sherds were found in mud closer to the open sea or in the mangroves. There were none amongst the coral rubble in deeper water at the river mouth, or on the coral rubble wave ramp to the south. We believe that the sherds had been wave-sorted into a fairly confined area at the back of the mud flat. It is likely that much debris sorting by wave action occurs during intermittent heavy cyclonic seas.

At Tan'huka, the sherds were found wedged into nooks and crannies in the fringing coral reef, about 20 to 30 m wide. As with Poitete, the area is intertidal, draining almost completely at low tide and covered by about 0.5 to 1m at high tide. Behind the reef is an open strand covered by coconut groves on a soil comprised of sand, clay and humus. In many places natural vegetation fringing the seaside acts as a trap for gravel brought in by wave action. In both places very small sherd fragments were sporadically found, but nothing in the way of quantity, size or preservation of those trapped in the reef surface. Those on the reef surface were partly disguised by marine encrustations.

Pottery description

Forty one sherds were collected from the two areas. Only those showing decoration or form are described in terms of decoration, form and fabric. Fabric was determined by examining the sherds under a low powered binocular microscope (X18).

Poitete. Twenty eight sherds were recorded, fifteen of which were decorated (Table 1). Decoration is diverse, consisting of dentate stamping, applique, linear incision and lip notching. Dentate stamped decoration was found on five sherds (Fig. 3:a,b,c,d,e). Of these one had also applique (Fig. 3:e), another applique and incised stamps (Fig. 3:c), and a third with incised stamped designs (Fig. 3:d). The dentate stamping has been applied in a clumsy and haphazard fashion compared with the intricate stamping found in the Early and Middle Lapita assemblages further west and east. In two of these sherds, dentate stamping cut across band markers (Fig. 3:a,b), while in a third the dentate stamping went into the applique strips (Fig. 3:e).


Apart from the two dentate stamped sherds with applique, another sherd with a row of applique blobs with incision was found (Fig. 4:a). Notching occurs on seven rims, one with linear incision (Fig. 4:b,c,d,e). Two are from jars, the rest from restricted orificed vessels in which lower form was not ascertainable. One neck sherd has linear incision (Fig. 3:f).


All sherds belong to restricted orifice vessels. No open bowls were identified. Two vessel forms were identified: jars and globular pots. Nine sherds are attributed to jars, with outcurving necks (no corner points on the neck), four rims, one neck, three necks with carination and one carination. All the rims are outcurving not everted. Three of the rims are asymmetrically positioned while the lip of the fifth is eroded. Orifice diameters have been ascertained for two of the rims: 22 and 36cm. Two of the necks with carinations have provided neck diameters of 26 and 28cm. Dentate stamping is found on two of these rims and on a carinated sherd. Two rims have notched lips. Linear incision is found on one neck sherd.

Three neck and body sherds are attributed to globular pots, with everted rim (corner point and rounded body). All three show the near complete profile of this vessel type from the neck to near the base. All three are plain, have distinct corner points at the neck making the rim everted, and have diameters at the neck ranging from 18, 20 to 22cm.

For 6 rims and 2 necks it was difficult to distinguish whether they came from a jar or globular pot. All are from restricted orifice vessels, with none showing everted rims (i.e. no internal corner point). One of these is the neck sherd with applique in the form of both buttons and strips, with dentate stamping (Figure 3:e), while another is the neck sherd with applique buttons and dentate stamped designs (Figure 3:c).

Seventy one percent of all sherds collected from Poitete were made using ferro-magnesium fabrics (n=20), the remainder have light fabrics (n=8) (Table 2). The ferro-magnesium group can be further subdivided into two groups. The first group has two types of grains: short brown tabular grains probably hornblende with longer green to black mineral grains, probably pyroxene (n=12). The second group lacks the hornblende grains (n=8). The light fabric is composed of quartz and feldspar. Only one sherd had large amounts of hornblende.

There is a difference seen between the fabrics used in jars and globular pots. The fabrics of jars are evenly distributed between the pyroxene with hornblende (n=5) and light fabrics (n=4). No jar was made with pyroxene only fabric. The three sherds attributed to globular vessels, on the other hand, were made from pyroxene only fabrics. Of those sherds in which it was not possible to distinguish between jars or pots, two were from light fabrics, the rest from pyroxene only and pyroxenes with hornblende fabrics (Table 2).

Eight sherds were recorded which could not be attributable to a vessel form. These were evenly distributed between the two ferro-magnesium fabrics (pyroxene n=3, pyroxene with hornblende n=3) and light fabric (n=2).

The dentate sherds were made from a variety of fabrics: three with dentate stamping only were made with a pyroxene/hornblende fabric, the dentate with applique was made from a pyroxene fabric, while the dentate with applique and incision was made from a light fabric.

All sherds with incision, and with applique and or notching were made from light fabrics. Notched lips on the other hand were made from predominantly pyroxene/ hornblende fabric (n=5), with one each from a pyroxene and light fabric respectively. A fabric could not be assigned to one incised sherd.

In summary, the Poitete assemblage is restricted to either jars or pots, with no bowls or complex vessel forms found in this assemblage. Decoration is limited to dentate stamping, applique (buttons and strips), linear incision and notched rims. Those vessels identified as globular pots were plain. A variety of fabrics suggest several production centres.

Tan'huka: thirteen sherds were recorded of which eleven have decoration (Table 3).

Dentate stamping was not found on any sherd. Lip modification is found on seven of the 11 sherds, one with a row of rounded applique with impressed circles (Fig. 5:a). Fingernail impressions are noted on one sherd in association with wide incised lines and impressed circles (Fig. 5:d). One sherd has excised lines in a linear fashion, while decoration on another consists of a single row of impressed nubbins below the lip on the neck (Fig. 5: c).


Two vessel forms are identified: restricted orifice and incurving. Nine of the sherds were rims of restricted orifice vessels, probably jars or globular pots. six of which had lip modification (see Fig. 5:b,c,d,e,f). All the rim sherds were asymmetrically positioned. Three orifice diameters were determined: 18, 24 and 28 cm.

Only one vessel was identified as an inward curving pot (Fig. 5:a). The orifice diameter is 20 cm. This vessel form is rare in Lapita assemblages with one recorded in later levels of Apalo (FOJ) in the Arawe Islands. This form is more common in later assemblages such as the Sohano ware from North Solomons, Mangaasi ware from Vanuatu, and Plum ware from New Caledonia.

Ten of the thirteen sherds were made using ferro-magnesium fabrics. A subgroup within this fabric group consists of two sherds having light inclusions, possibly alkali feldspars, visible. Only one sherd had a light fabric, comprising mostly quartz with perhaps alkali feldspars, while it was not possible to identify fabric in two sherds. The single incurving bowl was made using a ferro-magnesium fabric (Table 4). No sherds were found with the pyroxene/hornblende fabric.

The few sherds from this site were mostly from jars or globular pots (with one incurving bowl), with lip modification and occasional body decoration such as linear incision, impressed nubbins, applique and fingernail impressions. These were made using two different fabric types. A singular incurving bowl reminiscent of later Melanesia assemblages was decorated with unique applique shaped liked 'buttons' and made from a ferro-magnesium fabric. Unlike Poitete, no hornblende was identified from these sherds.

Regional context

The sherds from Kolombangara are consistent with a Late Lapita settlement (Summerhayes 2000a). Both assemblages consisted of jars or globular pots and no bowls with stands were found. Differences are seen between the two assemblages, the major one being the lack of dentate stamping and the presence of an incurving bowl from the Tan'huka assemblage.

Both assemblages have broadly similar fabrics with ferro-magnesium fabrics dominating in both assemblages and light fabrics being secondary. The light fabric minerals are not local to Kolombangara and must have been imported into both sites. Plagioclase feldspars could derive from nearby New Georgia and Vaguna (Felgate and Dickinson 2001:109). Quartz and potassium feldspars could have derived from further afield (see Felgate and Dickinson (2001) for possible source areas). The ferro-magnesium fabrics were probably local to the island as Kolombangara is made up of olivine basalts and hornblende andesite with clinopyroxenes a common mineral.

Differences between the assemblages are seen in the lack of the hornblende fabric in the Tan'huka assemblage, although both assemblages shared the non-hornblende ferromagnesium fabric that were used in the manufacture of globular pots at Poitete and restricted orifice vessels at Tan'huka. The lack of hornblende suggests not only the importation of vessels from outside the island group, but also the movement of vessels or sands within the island from other or shared production centres on Kolombangara. The importation of pottery alongside similar locally made wares is also found in other assemblages in the western Pacific (Summerhayes 2000b). One possible model is the movement of vessels as secondary to other forms of interaction such as the movement of people or other forms of social exchange.

Where do the Kolombangara assemblages fit with other Lapita assemblages? The dentate motifs when compared with other assemblages show similarities with Late Lapita assemblages. Of the five dentate sherds from Poitete, only a couple of motifs are identifiable. Compared with Anson's listing of motifs (Anson 1983: table XII) two are associated with Middle (2900-2700/2600 BP) to Late (2600-2200 BP) Lapita assemblages: motif 3 (Figure 3:a,b) and motif 35 (Figure 3:c,d). The other forms of decoration including punctation, fingernail impression (in particular opposed fingernail impressions) and applique is typical of Lapita assemblages in the Bismarck Archipelago at all periods of time, and not just later assemblages. However the association of dentate stamped and incised motifs, openness of the motifs and clumsiness of their execution in association with applique and fingernail impressed designs has similarities with later Lapita assemblages such as Honiavasa on New Georgia (Felgate 2001; Felgate and Dickinson 2001), DAF on Buka (Wickler 2001) and SAD at Watom (Anson 1999) which have all been radiocarbon dated to the late third millennium B.P. All these Late Lapita sites also share a similar settlement location with the Early and Middle Lapita settlements such as the Arawe Island sites of Adwe or Apalo (Gosden and Webb 1994) or Talepakemalai on Eloaua (Kirch 2001) suggestive of beach and/or stilt house occupation.

The presence of Lapita pottery on Kolombangara is also crucial in addressing the regional issue of the absence of Lapita sites in the Solomon Chain. Although Lapita sites have been known on Buka and Sohano Islands (Specht 1969; Wickler 1995a, 1995b, 2001), until recently none have been found further south. This absence has been interpreted as either:

1. A real absence in the Solomon Islands where pre-Lapita occupants kept out Lapita settlements--a kind of Lapita social fence (Gorecki 1992; Roe 1992; Sheppard et al. 1999: 321),

2. An absence due to environmental factors such as the lack of "luxuriant reefs" in the Solomon Chain (Swadling 1996:237; 2000:365),

3. A reflection of the lack of archaeological survey in the island group (Spriggs 1997),

4. A result of site destruction through tectonic activity (Kirch and Hunt 1988), or geomorphological processes making site identification more difficult (Felgate 2001--see below).

Is "absence of evidence evidence of absence"? The Solomon Island chain has had its share of archaeological attention. No Lapita sites were located by Terrell (1976) on Bougainville, Irwin (1972, see also 1973) in the Shortland Islands or Roe (1993) on Guadalcanal. A National Site Survey set up in the late 1970s for the Solomon Islands nation also failed to record any evidence of Lapita settlements (Miller and Roe 1982; Miller 1979). Spriggs undertook investigations in central Bougainville but found no Lapita (Spriggs 1997:171). Archaeological survey was undertaken on New Georgia by Chikamori (1967), while in the 1970's major investigations were undertaken on San Cristobal, Santa Aha, and Ulawa, as part of the Southeast Solomon Islands Culture-History Project (Davenport 1972; Black and Green 1975; Hendren 1976; Swadling 1991, 2000; Ward, 1976; Kaschko 1976; Green 1976a, 1976b). Although chert sources that supplied the Lapita settlements located further east in Remote Oceania were located, no Lapita pottery was identified.

Non-dentate pottery from late third millennium BP contexts were found from Sikumango on the Polynesian outlier of Bellona (Poulsen 1972), and the Feru II shelter on Santa Ana (Black and Green 1975; see also Swadling 2000:Fig. 1). Furthermore incised pottery was also reported from the reef flats at Panaivili, Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia (Reeve 1989). Spriggs (1997:172) noting that the decorative component of this pottery "such as incision, stick and fingernail impression and rarer applied relief", is found in Late Lapita and post Lapita sites, places this assemblage in the Late Lapita to post Lapita phase. Although no dentate stamped sherds were found, it is now known that decoration of the types found at Feru II and Panaivili are part of the Lapita ceramic tradition from its earliest times, albeit in minor amounts (Summerhayes 2000b).

The finds from Panaivili have been complemented by the recent collection in 1997/98 and analysis of sherds from a number of Roviana Lagoon intertidal locations (Felgate 2001). Felgate identified only one Late Lapita pot assemblage, Honiavasa, which has a number of decorative techniques: dentate stamping, linear incision, scalloped rims and carinated sherds. Another site, Nusa Roviana, has coarse linear dentate stamped pottery but is classed as post Lapita with the dentate sherd regarded as a heirloom effect (Felgate 2001:49). Other post Lapita findspots from intertidal locations around Roviana Lagoon include Gharanga, Hoghoi, Miho, and Zangana. Ceramic decoration from these findspots includes opposed fingernail impressions on the vessel's neck, punctuations or stick impressions, and rim notching on raised rims (Felgate 2001:53). On the basis of radiocarbon estimates of a charcoal inclusion from a sherd from Panaivili (2340-1920 cal B.P.) (AA33504) and exterior surface charcoal on a sherd from Hoghi (2860-2550 cal B.P.) (Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory--no Lab no. provided), Felgate (2001: 48, 56) argues that these Late Lapita and post-Lapita assemblages are mid to late 3rd millennium B.P.

It can be seen from the above review and the finding of Lapita sherds from Kolombangara that of the four possible reasons for the lack of Lapita assemblages outlined above, only the model for a 'Lapita social fence' is inappropriate, with lack of archaeological survey, site destruction and environmental factors all playing a role in site visibility.


The finding of pottery sherds on Kolombangara is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, is the presence of a Late Lapita settlement in the Western Solomons, an area thought to be a 'Lapita free' area. The evidence suggests that there were no spatial gaps in Lapita settlement in the western Pacific, although Lapita is still not expected on some islands such as Santa Ana because of environmental factors (Swadling 2000). Secondly, the location of sherds in intertidal zones demonstrates that previous archaeological research was not focussing on the right areas suggesting a re-think on our approach to archaeological reconnaissance. Lastly, an appreciation of geomorphological factors is also crucial in identifying archaeological sites, as seen in the survey and excavations of other Lapita sites such as the Arawe Islands (Gosden and Web 1994; Summerhayes 2000b), Mussau (Kirch 2001), Anir (Summerhayes 2000c), and noted more generally by Felgate (2001).
Table 1: Decoration from Poitete

Decoration type                        No.

Dentate                                 2
Dentate with incision                   1
Dentate with applique                   1
Dentate with applique and incision      1
Linear incision                         1
Linear incised with notching            1
Incised with applique                   1
Notched tip                             7

Total                                  15

Table 2: Poitete site--distribution of fabric type by vessel form.

                      Jars    Pots    Uncertain    Not attibutable

Pyroxene only           0       3        2            3
Pyroxene/hornblende     5       0        4            3
Light fabrics           4       0        2            2

Table 3: Decoration from Tan'huka.

Decoration type                                                No.

Stick impressed with fingernail impression and incision         1
Notched lip                                                     5
Scalloped lip                                                   1
Notched rim with applique and single tool impression            1
Stick impressed                                                 2
Excision                                                        1

Total                                                          11

Table 4: Tan'huka site--distribution of fabric type by vessel form.

                       Jars/Pots    Incurving   Not attributable

Pyroxene only              5           1               4
Pyroxene/hornblende        0           0               0
Light fabrics              0           0               1
Cannot identify            1           0               1


We wish to thank the people of Kolombangara, the Solomon Islands National Museum and in particular Lawrence Foanaota. Thanks also to Pam Swadling, Jim Specht, Peter Sheppard and Peter White for their comments on this paper. Pot drawings were by Sarah Phear.


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GRS: Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand; IS: Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
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Title Annotation:Research Report
Author:Summerhayes, Glenn R.; Scales, Ian
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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