An investigation of the Nan Madol archaeological site of Pohnpei
The Nan Madol site
The Nan Madol site
Giant Ruins Shrouded in Mystery
Pohnpei Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is one of the islands that form the Federated States of Micronesia. On this island are the ruins of Nan Madol, a megalith composed of 95 artificial islets made of basalt, covering an area approximately 1.5km by 0.7km. The islets are the ruins of an urban complex, constructed over the course of 1,000 years beginning in 500AD. The islets serve various functions, and include palaces, temples, royal tombs, and residential areas. It is thought that people used to travel between the islands by canoe, leading it to be described as the “Venice of the Pacific.” Nan Madol is one of the most extensive and spectacular cultural heritage sites in Oceania.
Today, Nan Madol remains shrouded in mystery. For instance, no one has explained how the basalt stones, the estimated to weigh as much as 90 tons, were transported from a site more than ten kilometers away, and piled on top of one another.
Conservation of the site and inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Although Nan Madol is an important site both in terms of academic significance and as a resource for tourism, there is no system in place for its protection. As a result, there have been concerns regarding the adverse impact of the plants that flourish around the ruins, and about the collapse of some of the structures. Oceania, despite its vast size, covering approximately one third of the earth’s surface, has very few sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Government of the Federated States of Micronesia therefore requested the support of UNESCO in its attempt to have Nan Madol inscribed on the World Heritage List.
A thorough understanding of the site is essential for conservation work and to prepare for the World Heritage nomination. The UNESCO Apia Office thus contacted the Japan Consortium for International Cooperation in Cultural Heritage (hereinafter JCIC-Heritage) to dispatch an investigation team to the site.
In February 2011, the JCIC-Heritage dispatched a survey team to Nan Madol based on the request of the UNESCO Office in Apia. The survey was conducted successfully, with the help of Professor Osamu Kataoka, an archaeologist who has been studying Nan Madol for more than twenty years.
Monitoring of the site
The survey focused on two major subject areas: monitoring the state of conservation and carrying out interviews regarding the current framework for conservation.In order to conduct the survey effectively within a limited timeframe, the most important of the 95 islets were selected, based on previous research and local oral traditions. Traveling along sightseeing trails at low tide, and by boat at high tide, we visited the selected islets. We observed the state of conservation, and made a hazard map indicating areas in danger. Furthermore, we took digital photos and videos of the damage, and used these records in later assessments of the cause of the problems.
Complicated conservation framework
Because the site is closely related to the island’s history and traditional culture, the situation was complicated, with not only the government, but several other stakeholders involved in the conservation of the site. In our investigation, we conducted interviews with several organizations, including the government of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Historical Conservation Office of Pohnpei State, Nahmwark, a traditional leader and the NGO established by the local residents for the conservation of the site. From these interviews, we were able to collect valuable information regarding their understandings of conservation of the site in relation to their respective positions. These results are compiled in our report.
In this mission, we clarified the physical issues surrounding the site, and identified the following five areas for further research: 1. move the stones of the site for the other purposes; 2. adverse impact of plants that flourish in the ruins; 3. propagation of mangroves caused by changes in water currents due to construction of the sightseeing trails; 4. wear due to visitor traffic; 5. deterioration due to age. In the absence of a master plan, all of these issues remain unresolved. In order to create a master plan, it is essential to establish an agreement among the stakeholders, including the local traditional society and the national and state governments, and to draw up a cooperation framework regarding the conservation of the site. Although all the stakeholders are strongly committed to conservation, our survey revealed a mutual lack of trust that had prevented cooperation among the parties.
Forming of a master plan based on the agreement of all stakeholders is a prerequisite both for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List, as desired by the Government of the Federated States of Micronesia, and for receiving international assistance for conservation of the site. The JCIC-Heritage, therefore, will promote cooperation between Japan and the Federated States of Micronesia by dispatching Japanese experts to workshops aimed at creating a master plan.
The results of the above mentioned mission were used not only in the report, but also to create a pamphlet illustrating the state of conservation of the site. We hope that these pamphlets will be used to explain the current state of conservation to the local people, and as reference material when requesting assistance from the international community.