Guest blog by Helen Alderson, visiting researcher
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that talked about Nukuoro, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia. While the museum collections here can tell us a lot about how cultures operated in the past, they can also tell us about the researchers who amassed them. The collection of Nukuoro artifacts lends a fascinating insight into the interests and motivations of Dr. Janet M. Davidson, who travelled to the remote atoll while she was in her early 20s in 1965.
In Pacific Island archaeology, we are fortunate to have many scholars who have dedicated their careers to increasing understanding of our unique heritage. Like many others, Dr. Davidson is an inspiring Pacific Island archaeologist who has left a legacy of research at Bishop Museum. She has long been my role model, as a prominent female New Zealand archaeologist, and I was fortunate to see her awarded the Roger C. Green Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand this year in June.
Davidson championed the idea of a more holistic archaeology in the Pacific. Frustrated at the lack of research on shell artifacts during a time in which lithics and ceramics were treated with a greater preference, she collected and analysed hundreds of shell fishhooks, coconut scrapers and adzes. She illustrated that shell artifacts are pivotal to studies of change over time on atolls, not only in material culture, but in the implications they have for understanding cultural interaction and integration (Davidson 1968:59). In my own research on volcanic high islands in Micronesia, I have found that monumental architecture is often treated with interest and preference over portable material culture. Davidson’s work serves as a reminder to us all that all material culture is relevant to societies’ development.
In another line that is still relevant today, Davidson also called for a greater focus on studying the geographic region Micronesia, particularly Eastern Micronesia (Davidson 1968:51). In particular, she stressed the importance of building a comparative collection database of artifacts (Davidson 1968:59, 63). In her Nukuoro collection, there is a representation of a variety of different artifacts, including ornaments, adzes, and fishhooks.
Finally, Davidson warned against stereotyping a culture based on its linguistic or physical attributes. Nukuoro is linguistically Polynesian, and has many Polynesian societal qualities. Nevertheless, the society has also taken on a variety of other material culture traits, particularly from neighbouring Micronesian islands (Davidson 1968:60-61). For example, within the Nukuoro collections here at Bishop Museum, a distinctive sliced Tridacna shell adze type is prominent. This type is not widespread in Polynesia, but is found in Micronesia and Melanesia (Davidson 1968:61). In the collections here, I have seen similar adzes from Pohnpei, a volcanic high island in Micronesia, and even Vanuatu, Melanesia. Davidson’s collections and research remind us to think of Oceania as an interacting sea of cultures, who interacted and innovated with each other.
See also: Davidson, J. M. (1968). Nukuoro: archaeology on a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia. Prehistoric culture in Oceania, 51-66.
For an overview of Dr. Davidson’s contribution to Pacific archaeology, see Kevin Jones’ summary for the NZAA: http://www.nzarchaeology.org/citations/Janet%20Davidson%20Citation.pdf