The little islands survey

Facebook and Google have been reminding me that it’s been a whole year since we were out in the field. Between working full time and dissertation proposal prep, I’ve managed to neglect this little blog for far too long. Good thing it’s NaNoWriMo, and I have no more excuses. Let’s get the reporting on this past field season all wrapped up!

The next stage in our field season was to survey the little islands in the archipelago to the southeast of Seram. It’s important to note that this islands were notorious (and still are, a little) for being something of a Pirates Paradise during the Colonial Period. Local Maluku boats were able to easily navigate the shallow and treacherous reefs surrounding this small islands and atolls. The Dutch, with their large, deep-bellied ocean voyagers, were not so good at this. Gesar island, in particular, is a semi-circular atoll with a narrow pass that opens into a small interior lagoon. The type of lagoon that is perfect for renegade spice merchants and pirates extraordinaire to circumvent Dutch control.

I mean look at that lagoon! Photo credit.

Gesar is a densely occupied island – it takes roughly one hour to walk the entirety of an island that serves as the economic hub of the region. If you live in Seram and want imported goods, or want to trade your sago or fish, you head to the markets of Gesar to conduct your business.

Welcome to Gesar!

Because Gesar is centrally located between the mainland of Seram and the smaller islands further east, it has historically, and currently, serves as a major player in the local trade market system, known as the Banda Zone.  This zone functioned to move staple and luxury goods throughout the region, which continues to this day. Gesar’s small “downtown” is home to a number of pharmacies, clothing stores, and stalls selling everything from soda to tylenol to dried sea cucumber and fresh fish. (This worked out well to my benefit, as I was dead set on finding a large quantity of cloves to bring back for Christmas presents).

The day after we arrived in Gesar we traveled out by boat to survey a number of the smaller islands in the vicinity. We identified several potential sites on the nearby islands, but the real gem of the survey was the discovery of a rock outcrop called Wai Cika (“why-chika”).

Wai Cika is pretty well known in this area. Local leaders that we talked to and gathered oral histories from mentioned it and noted that it had lots of rock art decorating it’s surfaces. Not only was it culturally interesting (who doesn’t like rock art?!), but it was also geologically interesting to our research because of the prominent “wave cuts” that were eroded into its rocky faces.

Wai Cika. You can see the second (Holocene high-stand) wave cut at the base of the outcrop, and the first (older) wave cut below the tree line.

Wave cuts are formed by wave action eroding the surface of a vertical, rocky shoreline over long periods of time. What’s really useful about wave cuts is that they document sea levels and provide a control against which to measure sea-level changes. Since waves occur at the surface of the ocean, wave cuts allow us to infer how high or low that ocean surface was at the time that the wave cuts formed. Our research is focused on environmental changes and rainfall levels, so knowing more about the overall environment in this region (example, ocean levels), is critical to paleoclimate studies.

Wai Cika clearly displayed two wave cuts – a larger semi-circular cut roughly halfway up its rock face, and a second smaller cut near the base of the outcrop above current sea-levels. The first wave cut is probably from the Pleistocene epoch, when sea-levels were much higher.The second cut at the base of the outcrop is what really excited us, because it is probably from the mid-Holocene high-stand, which occurred roughly 3,000-5,000 years ago. This is around the time period that we’re interested in gathering paleoclimate data for, so we were thrilled to be able to get a sense of sea-levels at that time.

This is super cool! Now we only need to figure out how to get up there..
Lauryl and Peter checking out the rock art (in red and green).

Adhi, one of the Arkenas archaeologists, is an expert in rock art. He was very excited by the many images that we found at Wai Cika. He and about half of our crew spent the better part of the day  and a full second day recording and documenting the rock art.

Adhi and crew at work recording rock art images.

The process of recording rock art, or any archaeological site for that matter, is fairly detail oriented and time intensive. Careful descriptions of the site are crucial – the worst thing an archaeologist can do is forget to take note of a critical measurement or detail, because once you’re back in the lab, you may never get to visit that site again! Adhi and crew spent several hours recording the location, type of image, color of pigment, size, and so forth of all the rock art images at Wai Cika. If memory recalls, there were roughly a dozen or so motifs, ranging from hand prints to anthropomorphic (human-like) figures, and images of boats and ferns.

Photographs rarely capture the impact of rock art. However, a little doctoring in photo-shop…
….and all of a sudden a cluster of handprints appears!
A color-corrected image of ferns or similar plants.
The most complicated and formal image at Wai Cika – the prize anthropomorphic figure!
After! A motif of some sort, looks almost heart shaped!
Color-corrected image of boat with paddles.

To end this post, I think it’s important to point out that so very few of the things that we found during the big and little island surveys were as sexy as what we found at Wai Cika. There is something incredibly intimate about art, especially rock art, that allows sites like Wai Cika to reach out from the past and connect with people across all walks of life. Unlike stone tool scatters or shell middens, rock art is immediately identifiable as something created by humans – it doesn’t take an archaeologist to recognize it as something culturally important.

Archaeology needs sexy things like rock art, not only because it makes for visually awesome slides at conference presentations, but because it is iconic and transcends disciplines and training. For this we were truly lucky. Although we found lots of sites that are interesting on an intellectual level, they are likely only interesting to an archaeologist. And if archaeology ever wants to make itself accessible and “cool” to the public at large, we gotta keep it sexy!


All photographs by Adhi Oktaviana and Marlon Ririmasse. Rock art images were enhanced using DStretch.



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