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The Australian National University--Vanuatu Cultural Centre Archaeology Project, 1994-97: Aims and Results.


Despite an intensive period of research in Vanuatu during the 1960s and 1970s, a number of basic questions regarding the archaeology of the islands remained largely unanswered. The Australian National University--Vanuatu Cultural Centre Archaeological Project began in 1994, and was established in an attempt to address some of these questions. Research has been carried out on the islands of Malakula, Efate and Erromango, and has concentrated on establishing cultural sequences for the different islands. The evidence collected thus far overwhelmingly indicates that the islands were initially colonised some 3000 years ago by Lapita settlers. Dentate-stamped Lapita ceramics arrived with the initial colonisers and the ceramic traditions that followed evolved from the Lapita tradition. A more technical report on the 1994-97 work has recently been published (Bedford et al. 1998) and includes full reporting of radiocarbon dates on which the chronologies presented here are based. The project has also included intensive archaeological field-training of Cultural Centre staff and fieldworkers. This has proved invaluable where fieldworkers are able to heighten local awareness and understanding of archaeological remains.

The Australian National University's (ANU) long history of involvement in the archaeology of Vanuatu dates back to 1972 when Les Groube carried out a series of surveys and excavations on the islands of Erromango and Aneityum in the south and very briefly on the Banks islands in the north (Groube 1972, 1975). Other ANU researchers of early 1970s included Norma McArthur, assisted by Win Mumford, and Graeme Ward (McArthur 1974; Ward 1979).

Matthew Spriggs' research in Vanuatu dates back to 1978, leading to the completion of his PhD thesis in 1981. The thesis concentrated on agricultural intensification and human impact on the environment of Aneityum, the southern-most inhabited island of the archipelago, as well as ethno-archaeological study of irrigation systems on the northern island of Maewo (Spriggs 1981, 1986). As part of this project, the first pollen analysis for Vanuatu was carried out by Geoff Hope, and this revealed vegetation clearance on a massive scale at about 3000 BP (Hope & Spriggs 1982). But erosion and subsequent valley infilling is of course a problem when looking for early sites. On Aneityum Spriggs saw no land surface in alluvial sections older than 2000 years, so at least a thousand years of history was essentially missing.

Lapita pottery, the earliest and most widespread style of pottery in the Pacific, was initially found in Vanuatu on Efate and Malo islands in the 1960s (Hebert 1966; Hedrick 1971). It has been linked to the spread of Austronesian-speaking agriculturalists from Taiwan through island Southeast Asia and into the Pacific. It has been found from New Guinea, through the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji to Tonga and Samoa. It is often decorated using toothed or dentate stamps impressed into the wet clay, and has been dated from about 3500 through to about 2800 BP, perhaps later in some areas (see Kirch 1997 for a recent survey).

A separate style of pottery, also apparently widespread, was found by Jose Garanger at the Mangaasi site in north-west Efate in the 1960s, and was named after that site. Its relationship to Lapita was unclear. Mangaasi decoration involved applied clay bands and incised designs, and it was believed to date from 2750 years ago, perhaps continuing to the 12th or even 18th century. A third style, Erueti ware, was recovered from the site of that name on the south coast of Efate and dated to about 2300 BP. This seemed more evidently derived from Lapita and was generally plainware with a distinctive flat lip. Garanger considered that both Lapita and Erueti ware were later than and unrelated to Mangaasi ware in central Vanuatu (Garanger 1972, English translation 1982).

When at the University of Hawaii in 1983, Spriggs started a project on Erromango, working with Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC) fieldworker Jerry Taki (who had earlier worked with Les Groube), to research pre-2000 BP history in southern Vanuatu. The uplifted coral-reef terraces on the east coast of the island were not covered by alluvial deposition, and it was hypothesised that pottery would be found close by reef passages and freshwater sources at river-mouths. Here were located the first in situ pottery sites recovered from southern Vanuatu, and a date of 2300 BP was obtained (Spriggs & Wickler 1989). Previously, the apparent lack of pottery in southern Vanuatu had been used to bolster a theory of aceramic pre-Lapita settlement of the region.

Partly based on initial results from Erromango, Spriggs published an article in the Journal of Pacific History, arguing against the idea that Lapita and Mangaasi pottery styles were two separate pottery traditions. Those who believed that they were separate traditions often took them to represent two separate migrations of people into the Pacific. The alternative theory of cultural continuity from Lapita to Mangaasi was derived from earlier work in the region by Jim Specht (1969) and Jean Kennedy (1982). Spriggs argued that a series of sites were transitional from Lapita to Mangaasi, with features of both; that is, a developmental sequence existed between the two traditions (Spriggs 1984).

This was further investigated by Ephraim Wahome, an ANU PhD student (Wahome 1997; in prep.), who extended the analysis on the basis of largely published sources to show that the pottery sequences in island Melanesia were basically changing in a similar sequential pattern. That is, different archipelagos go through the same sequence of change, beginning with Lapita pottery dating from about 3500 to 2800 BP through to 1500 BP in the areas where pottery survived that long. After that period the gaps in distribution of pottery-making centres were such that contact among them was no longer maintained. The potters no longer saw each other's work and a rapid localisation of styles emerged. The Vanuatu research was designed to further test this model of continuing post-Lapita interaction by comparing pottery sequences in different areas of the archipelago to see if they too changed in step.

In 1994, archaeological work resumed in Vanuatu after a ten-year moratorium on research. In the meantime, the Vanuatu Cultural and Historic Sites Survey (VCHSS) had been set up by Jean-Christophe Galipaud and David Roe, but their brief was for an archaeological survey and mitigation measures and did not involve any significant archaeological excavations (Roe et al. 1994). The questions, however, remained very basic, in particular: how long has Vanuatu been settled by humans? During the ten-year hiatus in Vanuatu research a lot had happened in island Melanesian archaeology, largely as a result of another ANU initiative, the Lapita Homeland Project, which investigated the archaeology of the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea (Allen & Gosden 1991). Human occupation was established as going back at least 35,000 years, and in a related project Stephen Wickler, a student of the University of Hawaii, established that human occupation of the main Solomons chain went back at least 29,000 years (Wickler 1990, 19 95). Previously, the earliest sites in the Solomons were associated with the pottery-using Lapita culture of 3200 years ago. Lapita sites were also the earliest trace of human occupation in Vanuatu, so the question was raised as to whether there might be much earlier occupation as well.

Earlier experience on Aneityum and Erromango suggested where to look for such answers: on coasts where early sites would be preserved by tectonic uplift through earthquakes; and where old shorelines dating back beyond the time of modern sea levels, that is before 6000 BP, would be preserved. These sites had never been drowned, as uplift of the coast matched or exceeded sea level rise. This might be expected on several islands, such as Erromango, Efate and Malakula. Malakula, in particular, seemed promising. The island undergoes frequent tectonic uplift, with some of the highest rates in the whole of Vanuatu, particularly in the north-west where it is estimated to be some three metres every thousand years (Taylor et al. 1980). The coastal landscape comprises a series of uplifted coral terraces riddled with caves and shelters, many of which were known to contain rock art.

A second aim was to provide cultural sequences for key islands in the group. Despite the pioneering efforts of Elizabeth and Richard Shutler (1966, 1975) and Jose Garanger (1972) in the 1960s and later work by researchers such as Ward (1979), the most basic questions about Vanuatu archaeology remained unanswered. With the partial (and, as subsequently shown, misleading) exception of central Vanuatu known from Garanger's work, no reasonably complete cultural sequences were available from any area of Vanuatu before the present ANU-VCC project. This was a particular inconvenience for the conduct of the VCHSS, as lack of pottery or other artifact chronologies made it hard to assess the archaeological significance of sites where surface collections were made during surveys. It was not known whether sites were 3000 or 300 years old. The present project aimed to rectify this by producing basic cultural sequences for particular islands in southern, central and northern Vanuatu. Related to this was the construction o f parallel sequences of environmental change, based on pollen cores from a range of coastal and inland areas of the archipelago.

In 1994 the archaeology of Erromango was initially targeted, as previous research had revealed suitable cave sites. In 1995 research was extended to the island of Malakula and in 1996 to Aneityum, Efate and Maewo. The principal ANU researchers involved are Stuart Bedford, Meredith Wilson (see her contribution to this collection) and Matthew Spriggs. In 1995 Nicola van Dijk conducted part of her PhD research on Pacific island human skeletal analysis at Erromango (1998). A project on palaeo-environmental reconstruction is also under way, initially concentrating on following up the results of Spriggs' 1981 thesis on Aneityum, and involving Geoff Hope on pollen analysis and Brad Pillans on aspects of geomorphology. Geoff Hope has also done preliminary pollen work on Erromango and Efate.

Although much of the excavated archaeological remains is in the initial stages of analysis, general conclusions can be presented. Progress has been made in establishing archaeological and environmental sequences from a number of islands in Vanuatu and in addressing the question of possible pre-Lapita settlement in the archipelago. We will briefly discuss the results from each area worked on, but will not include the rock art studies by Meredith Wilson which are described elsewhere in this volume.


On Aneityum we sought to further clarify the nature of human impact on the environment of the island through pollen and geomorphological analyses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s University of the South Pacific geographer Paddy Nunn had challenged earlier interpretations of Aneityum landscape history, suggesting that the major environmental changes documented were the result of natural rather than human-induced forces (see, for instance, Nunn 1994:323-26). We thus set out to examine aspects of these changes by comparing pre- and post-settlement environmental histories. We were able to establish that the island is geologically very stable, with no evidence of recent tectonic uplift, and that a reasonably stable environment before 3000 BP showed major signs of change post-3000 BP. Dating of agricultural sites buried under alluvial flood deposits confirmed earlier estimates of valley-floor agriculture having started about 1300 years ago.


In 1994 on Erromango, Spriggs and VCC fieldworker Jerry Taki excavated four cave sites along the west coast at a range of altitudes from 5 to 125 metres, where potentially early Holocene (past 10,000 years) and Pleistocene (earlier than 10,000 years) shorelines were preserved. The aim of excavating Velemendi, Velilo, Raowalai and Ilpin caves was to look for evidence of pre-3000 BP human settlement. The earliest cultural deposit from any of the sites occurred at five to ten metres above sea level at Velilo cave. It consisted of a shallow trench and several postholes, associated with a charcoal date of 1150-1100 BP. The only other excavation that provided dates earlier than the last few hundred years was at Raowalai Cave where charcoal and shell associated with two burials was dated to 750-700 BP and 500 BP respectively. The next use of the site was domestic, a large earth oven which gave a date of within the last 400 years.

The other cave sites returned radiocarbon dates no earlier than the last few hundred years. The lack of evidence of earlier use would be surprising if there were widespread occupation of the island before the Lapita expansion at about 3200-3000 BP. The only pottery found on Erromango comes from village sites situated at prime settlement locations at river-months and associated reef passages. Two such sites, Ponamla in the north and Ifo in the south-east, have been intensively investigated. The pattern of occupation on Erromango would suggest Lapita agriculturalists and their immediate successors were moving into an empty landscape and were able to establish settlements in the prime locations for habitation and canoe access. Only later, as populations grew and people spread out from these locations, did these caves become part of the settlement system of the inhabitants.

In the last few days of the 1994 fieldwork the open-settlement site of Ponamla was visited and tested. The site's potential was recognised by former VCC fieldworker Sempet Naritantop, who identified pottery brought to the surface during posthole digging for a fence around the hamlet of Ponamla. In 1995 Stuart Bedford, Jerry Taki and Matthew Spriggs returned to the site for over five weeks of excavation.

Ponamla is a prime location for settlement with its sheltered bay facilitating canoe access and reliable freshwater supplied by the Ponamla River. It is a relatively undisturbed settlement site with cultural deposits dating from 2750-2300 BP. Stone structural features were recorded at the site, the earliest significant stone structures yet found in the Pacific. They were stone terraces which appear to have been constructed to form flat areas for the construction of houses and/or activity areas. At least three levels of structural features were identified within the cultural deposit (Spriggs 1998). An areal excavation revealed what appeared to be a former cooking area. The recovered pottery changed from a predominance of plainware in the earliest layers of the site, from around 2750 BP, to increased proportions of fingernail impressed and incised decorated ware in the upper layers, dating to around 2300 BP. The pot forms are globular cooking vessels with out-curving rims that were made on the site (Bedford 19 98). One sherd of classic dentate-stamped Lapita pottery was also recovered from the site in a disturbed deposit, suggesting that there may be earlier human presence in the area back to 3000 BP.

Ponamla appears to be a secondary colonising settlement on Erromango, a few hundred years after it was first settled by Lapita colonists possessing dentate-stamped ceramics. The initial occupation was relatively short and intensive with ceramics that are culturally transitional between Lapita-period plainware and incised and applied relief traditions like Mangaasi ware. The inhabitants moved into a pristine environment and commenced an intensive exploitation of the local fauna and marine resources. David Steadman from the University of Florida is analysing bird bone from this and other Vanuatu sites and has identified a range of now-extinct species (Steadman, pers. comm.). The site was abandoned after 2400 BP, probably due to resource depletion, and was not re-occupied until c. 1600 BP, for which there is evidence of an ephemeral use of the area. People left with the ceramic tradition intact and returned without it.

Ifo is located on the south-east coast of Erromango. It is one of a number of pottery sites that was recorded along the east coast of the island in 1983, all of which are located near reef passages or at river-mouths. The site is concentrated on a series of linear ridge formations. A number of these ridges run parallel to the river and appear to be former beach ridges, while others run at right angles and are primarily made up of cultural material. During the 1983 fieldwork, Spriggs and Taki excavated a trench across one of the ridges. Taki returned to this site with Bedford during June and July 1996 and excavated a larger area on the same ridge. The site comprised a central core of flattish coral cobbles on top of a relatively level coral subsurface. These flattish coral blocks appear to have been the result of people clearing a flat area on first arrival. Once these linear piles of coral had been formed they appear to have served as a focus for the dumping of cooking debris and refuse. Cultural material wa s excavated from throughout the ridge feature.

At the lowest level of the mound -- below and amongst the coral blocks -- cultural material associated with Lapita settlement was recovered. The ceramics include dentate-stamped and finely incised Lapita sherds from a number of different vessels, along with numerous plain sherds. The ceramics at this lowest level were associated with bones of large birds, turtle and fruit bat, as well as shell adzes and armrings. A charcoal sample returned a date of about 2900 BP. The Lapita ceramics were followed by globular pots with fingernail and incised decoration. Although a lot of plain pottery exists on the site, stratigraphically this could not be clearly separated from the later decorated material as it could be at Ponamla. This later decorated pottery is very similar to the decorated sherds recovered from upper levels of Ponamla, and it is of similar age. Thus far dates of about 2700-2100 BP have been obtained.

Finally, near the top of the mound, thick sherds of several crudely made and roughly incised globular pots occur. This material appears to signal the final phase of the ceramic tradition on Erromango, probably around 2000 BP. Disturbance from more recent activity may make precise dating of the end of the ceramic sequence somewhat difficult at this site.

The two Erromango sites of Ponamla and Ifo have produced a wealth of ceramic material, and the sequences of each add further strength to the argument of a basic cultural continuity in Vanuatu between Lapita and the cultures that followed. First settlement of Erromango occurred around 3000 years ago with the arrival of Lapita colonists. It appears that ceramics produced on the island were used for up to a thousand years with production ceasing around 2000 BP.


On Malakula pottery is found on the ground surface all over the island. It was produced there until recent times, perhaps dying out around the time of European contact. Potentially, the island has a 3000-year ceramic sequence, and provides an ideal area to investigate pre-Lapita settlement.

Bedford, working with VCC fieldworker Jimmyson Sanhanbath, conducted work in north-west Malakula in 1995-97. An intensive survey was conducted along ten kilometres of the coast between Tenmiel and Tenmaru, along with transects some kilometres into the interior. The sheltered bays at the mouths of perennial streams were the focus of research; on the basis of previous experience on Erromango, these were seen as prime areas for early settlement. Caves at varying altitudes in the Pleistocene reef terraces were also targeted to test for pre-3000 BP remains and to establish pottery sequences and chronology.

The oldest occupation appeared to be at Malua Bay, an open-settlement site where a single dentate-stamped Lapita sherd, associated with thin-walled, plainware, was found at the base of the cultural deposits. Following this occupation the site was abandoned for a period. Again, we seem to be within a few hundred years of the initial settlement of Vanuatu. The site thus represents a secondary colonising event, perhaps from the nearby Lapita 'metropolis' of Malo Island, where extensive Lapita pottery deposits have been found (Hedrick n.d.). The rock shelter and inland open sites on Malakula have produced late dates.

A common factor in the Malakula and Erromango cases is that key sites are located in dry leeward areas of the islands. Initial colonisation may have had more devastating environmental effects than would have been the case in wetter regions. We might, for instance, expect poor forest re-growth after clearance and more marginal agricultural production given the rainfall regime.

The archaeology of Malakula is far from complete, but an understanding of settlement patterns is beginning to emerge. The earliest settlements were concentrated on the coast around sheltered bays with reliable water sources. It is not until sometime later that permanent settlement shifts inland and also to more marginal areas of the coast. Possibly, after initial settlement and full use of the resources to the point of depletion, people moved to another island or another part of Malakula, the north-west being resettled at a later date. Segments of the ceramic chronology, at least for the north-west, confirm that the lengthy pottery tradition began with the arrival of Lapita peoples, although the relationship of that material to the later material still needs refinement. Pre-3000 BP settlement is not indicated: there was certainly no suggestion of any evidence of pre-Lapita settlement in any of the fifteen cave sites so far excavated on the island.


In August 1996 Spriggs supervised four weeks of excavation at the Mangaas, or Mangaasi, site on the west coast of Efate, central Vanuatu, and returned again with Bedford in 1997 for a second season. The research was designed to further develop the pioneering work of Jose Garanger on Mangaasi pottery,, in light of the work on Erromango and Malakula, and to address questions raised by Graeme Ward in his 1979 thesis concerning the Efate pottery chronology (see also Ward 1989). Researchers had questioned the validity of Garanger's early-to-late Mangaasi ceramic sequence, and the termination date for pottery use on Efate had still to be established (Spriggs 1997a:179-81).

The 1996 and 1997 excavations at Mangaasi were run as part of a training program for VCC personnel. A total of four testpits were excavated in 1996 and a further seven in 1997 in areas inland and to the east of Garanger's excavation (totalling 18.5 square metres). The area has experienced tectonic uplift, estimated at some two metres in the last 3000 years. This was confirmed by the excavation of the testpits, adjacent to the area excavated by Garanger, which reached the former reef at 3.6 metres below the ground surface. The lower deposits consisted of a series of former coral foreshore deposits. Water-worn pottery was found throughout the stratigraphy. The presence of the water-worn pottery in the earlier foreshore levels suggests that people from a settlement further inland than the locations excavated in 1996 were dumping refuse onto the former inter-tidal beach area.

The excavations of 1997, again a series of testpits (with one later enlarged to a two-by-two metre area), located deep cultural deposits (up to two metres below the surface) that were relatively undisturbed. The main area of cooking and of dumping refuse is concentrated along the bank of a small perennial stream and on the changing shoreline, due to uplift, some distance back from the high tide mark.

From the excavations a clear picture of the ceramic sequence at the Mangaasi site has emerged. Plain pottery, frequently with notching on the lip, was recovered from the base of the testpits. The form and slight decoration on the lip are very similar to the ceramics excavated by Garanger at Erueti, hence the term 'Erueti ware' for this material (Garanger 1972:26-29). This plainware material was not recovered by Garanger during his excavations in the 1960s, as the area he worked on was located nearer the sea and dated to a later period, that of the incised and applied relief ware known as Mangaasi ware. The plainware excavated in 1997 is followed by pottery decorated with both incising and punctation. Finally, applied relief ware appears at the end of the ceramic sequence at the site along with both incised and punctate material. The applied relief material was largely recovered from the upper layers of the site.

The major Erueti ware occupation occurred around 2700-2200 BP, and is separated from the incised and applied relief pottery by a layer of volcanic ash, perhaps from the Ambrym volcano caldera-forming event of about 2000 years ago. The later Mangaasi ware occupation occurred over a wider area of the site and was more diffuse in nature, although there was not necessarily any hiatus in settlement. The only date directly relating to this occupation is about 1600 BP. Garanger had previously dated Mangaasi ware as starting at 2700 BP, but the recent excavations clearly indicate that it first appears several hundred years later.

There is some evidence that the area was later used for gardening, and then in 1452 AD it was buried by ash from the Kuwae eruption that formed the present Shepherd Islands (Robin et al. 1994). The area was resettled in the 17th century; oral traditions place the village of the legendary figure Roy Mata at this site (Garanger 1972:49). The area was abandoned after Roy Mata's death, until gardening was resumed at the site in the 1920s. Previously, it was thought that Roy Mata lived about 1265 AD but the dates from his settlement at Mangaasi and re-dating of artifacts from his burial site on Hat Island or Retoka now place him in the 1600s.

The traditions concerning Roy Mata have always been somewhat fragmentary, and indeed contradictory. The redating of his supposed grave and village site fit much better with the stories about his role in Efate society than the previously accepted pre-Kuwae age. Roy Mata's claim to fame was not some overlordship of the whole region as is sometimes asserted, nor is it likely that he was a stranger chief from somewhere in Polynesia as is often believed. He seems to have been an Efate chief with an idea that transformed the political structure of Efate during a time of major conflict, known as the Takarua War (discussed in Espirat et al. 1973). He may indeed have brought that war to an end. He is said to have instituted a peace ceremony and feast held every five years, called natamwate. The natamwate was an opportunity to talk over disputes which had arisen since the previous feast and thus it reduced the incidence of inter-tribal warfare by providing a forum for peaceful dispute resolution. His peacemaking role may explain the reverence with which he was treated in death.


The two excavation seasons at Mangaasi have been run as field training programs for VCC staff and fieldworkers. During the field training program a range of skills was imparted to the participants, depending in part on their literacy and other educational skills and in part upon their previous archaeological experience. For instance, one participant had some prior university training in archaeology and was given supervisory and recording tasks. Some of the participants in 1997 had taken part in the 1996 training program and so were involved in explaining the work to those who were participating for the first time, they were given supervisory tasks in relation to the first-time participants.

The program was conducted mainly through one-on-one informal training sessions, rather than through group classes. The skills developed through the program include those listed below:

* the purpose and value of archaeological research;

* basic principles of archaeological excavation and recording techniques;

* digging to ten or twenty cm levels while observing changes in sediment colour etc., signifying a transition between cultural layers;

* accurate measurement of level depths using line-level and tape, and accurate recording of feature and artefact placement where these were noted during excavation;

* basic principles of stratigraphy and recognition of different layers, and the reasons for their formation. The site occupation layers included house floors, volcanic ash layers from local eruptions, tidal wave deposits, (probably) former gardened topsoils, former beach deposits and ancient raised reefs; it was thus ideal for imparting stratigraphic principles;

* techniques of wet and dry screening of excavation sediments;

* sorting of screened sediments into artifact classes, such as pottery, charcoal, shell, stone artifacts and bones;

* artifact recognition, particularly important for flaked stone artifacts (with which the participants were not previously familiar) and for distinguishing shell artifacts and manufacturing debris from general food shell;

* artifact handling and specialised collection techniques for in situ charcoal, useful for radiocarbon dating;

* communicating to others how archaeologists construct a site picture from the remains found, and why they use particular excavation strategies, in this case systematic testpit transects followed by expansion of one-metre square testpits to larger area excavations.

The re-mapping of the site by trainers in 1997 confirmed the accuracy of the 1996 mapping exercise, undertaken as part of that year's training program. The aim of the project is to train Cultural Centre staff to undertake small-scale test excavations as part of the evaluation work of the VCHSS. Training will continue in the form of 'refresher' courses as staff gain experience of field situations.

For VCC fleidworkers such skills mean that they can assist professional archaeologists, from both the Centre and other institutions, on excavations in their home islands. In addition, fleidworkers can play a crucial liaison role between professional archaeologists and local communities, explaining what archaeological work entails and its aims and values. After participating in the program, all trainees are fully conversant with the processes involved in archaeological work and are able to explain them to their home communities, who sometimes confuse archaeology with mineral exploration activities. The fieldworkers are thus able to heighten local awareness and understanding, particularly as the pace of mining exploration increases in Vanuatu. Some major mineral projects will be starting up in the near future.

In addition to the training program, the full-time VCC staff were introduced to a range of more advanced techniques in recording, excavation planning and survey methods. There were limits to this training during the 1997 season, because staff were under great work pressure at the time and were not able to spend as much time on the program as had been originally planned. Some were overseas on courses or involved with a large travelling exhibition of artifacts from the Cultural Centre. It is hoped, however, that sufficient forward-planning can be undertaken to increase participation by full-time staff during subsequent seasons of the project.


The ANU-VCC Archaeology Project has succeeded in a number of its objectives and brought greater clarity to the early history of the archipelago. Ceramic sequences from key regions of Vanuatu have now been established, with some uniformity being recognised throughout the islands for the first thousand years of ceramic production -- Lapita to plainware to incised and applied relief wares. The new dates from the Mangaasi-type site now situate it more clearly within the pattern of similar pottery styles found from Manus to New Caledonia and Fiji.

The excavations have established that the islands were first settled by Lapita colonists some 3000 years ago and the ceramic sequences that followed evolved from the Lapita ceramic tradition. The excavation of a series of cave sites in Malakula and Erromango, in areas of rapid uplift, have thus far produced no evidence for settlement of Vanuatu prior to 3000 BP. A similar picture has been established for New Caledonia through the recent work of Christophe Sand (Sand 1995a, 1995b). Strategies of initial Vanuatu settlement are also emerging. The pattern suggests the arrival of colonists, followed by intensive resource exploitation, followed by resource depletion and other environmental impacts, site abandonment, and then movement to other islands or areas of the same island. The areas of initial settlement were later re-occupied as the population grew. This pattern also holds for many other Pacific islands (Spriggs 1997b).

Further work is planned for the Mangaasi site and adjacent areas on Efate in 1998, and there are still plenty of areas in Vanuatu as yet untrammelled by the archaeologist's trowel or pollen analyst's piston corer.


The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of William Dickinson, Jose Garanger, Joe Gyngell, Geoff Hope, David Luders, Brad Pillans, David Steadman, the staff of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, and the landowners and chiefs of Aneityum, Erromango, Efate and Malakula. The training program was funded by a grant from the Sasakawa Pacific Island Nations Fund administered by Professor Yosi Sinoto of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu and (for 1996 only) a grant from the South Pacific Cultures Fund of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Funding of fieldwork and analysis by ANU personnel came from the Division (now Department) of Archaeology and Natural History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies and from an Australian Research Council small grant to Matthew Spriggs. Full acknowledgements are given in Bedford et al. 1998.
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Author:Bedford, Stuart; Spriggs, Matthew; Regenvanu, Ralph
Geographic Code:8VANU
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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