Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AM & AM Fdn vols explore ancient Polynesian

“It confirms without a doubt that we are sitting on a Polynesian settlement,” says Dr Amy Mosig Way, an Australian Museum archeologist. CREDIT: WOLTER PEETERS.

Julie Power, Norfolk Island find solves part of Pacific’s most enduring mystery, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 2022

For six years, Pitcairn descendant Neil “Snowy” Tavener didn’t tell anyone that he believed he had found evidence of an ancient Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island.

For six years, Pitcairn descendant Neil “Snowy” Tavener didn’t tell anyone that he believed he had found evidence of an ancient Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island that could solve part of the Pacific’s most enduring enigma.

Did the Polynesians ever live there for long periods? And if so, why did they leave?

Archaeologists describe Norfolk as one of the Polynesian mystery islands because it was uninhabited when discovered by Captain James Cook in 1774. Describing the island as a paradise, with distinctive pine trees once thought to be useful for ship masts, Cook declared it for the British Crown.

Neil ‘Snowy’ Tavener with Dr Amy Mosig Way (left) and Nicola Jorgensen (right) at the new dig site on Norfolk Island. CREDIT: WOLTER PEETERS.

Snowy, as Tavener likes to be called, waited years to find someone he trusted with his secret. That paid off this week when Norfolk Island woman Nicola Jorgensen, who is undertaking a masters in archaeology at the University of Sydney, embarked on a dig funded by the Australian Museum Foundation with local volunteers.

Before anyone even began digging, Jorgensen’s mother Deb – one of many locals volunteering – found the edge of an adze (a type of ancient cutting tool) lying in the soil in plain sight.

Along with other finds at the dig, Jorgensen said the new site provided evidence of extensive occupation by Polynesian ancestors across the island, solving part of the mystery. “It is more than just a fleeting settlement,” she said.

The dig is part of the Australian Museum’s first in-depth scientific expedition to Norfolk, a comprehensive health check on the island’s biodiversity that involves dozens of scientists studying its flora and fauna over several years.

“We were blown away,” said Jorgensen. “It is a tangible link to the island’s Polynesian heritage, and it is cool that it was sparked by local knowledge.”

An archeological dig has uncovered the site of a second ancient Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island. Vision: Wolter Peeters. VIEW VIDEO HERE.

“There is so much mystery, in terms of Polynesian settlement. We don’t know where they came from or where they went after they left Norfolk. There are just a lot of questions that need answers.”

Dr Amy Mosig Way, an Australian Museum archaeologist who specialises in stone artefacts and who lectures in archaeology at the University of Sydney, said the find was conclusive.

“It confirms without a doubt that we are sitting on a Polynesian settlement. And what’s really exciting is up to this point, we’ve only had one other site.”

This week’s discovery, located in the hills of the national park, was a long way from the first site found in 1995 in the sand dunes of Emily Bay. It was in a completely different context, she said. “It extends and expands on what we know.”

Norfolk Islander Neil ‘Snowy’ Tavener holds a Polynesian adze at an archeological dig site. VIEW IMAGE GALLERY HERE.

The Australian Museum expedition, the first phase of an ongoing program, includes a comprehensive survey of the island, which is 1700 kilometres north-east of NSW. The local community was playing an essential role helping scientists, said the Australian Museum’s chief scientist Professor Kris Helgen.

When Norfolk was colonised as a penal settlement in 1788, the presence of feral bananas and Polynesian rats suggested prior occupation. Over time there were other clues, including a skull, a burial site and other stone chips and adzes. But not enough to suggest continuous occupation.

Dr Amy Mosig Way, an archaeologist at the Australian Museum, documents her finds. CREDIT: WOLTER PEETERS.

During the 1995 dig at Emily Bay’s sand dunes, Australian archaeologists discovered the first signs of pre-European settlement: a Polynesian house and prayer centre, a marae, and a hearth.

This first site seemed to disprove claims that the Polynesians had been “accidental callers”, but it was not quite enough to suggest continual settlement.

Jorgensen and Mosig Way believe the new site could date back to 1250-1300 AD, when New Zealand was settled by the Polynesians, who sailed the Pacific using the stars, winds and currents to navigate. Carbon dating over the next few months is expected to provide more information.

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See also: Ancient stone tools uncovered on Norfolk Island by Australian archaeologists will rewrite history

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