Pacific Hall: A Means to Discover Oceanic Homelands

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Dr. Tianlong Jiao excavates at the Damaoshan site, Fujian Province, China.

Bishop Museum archaeology collections manager Summer Moore and Chinese colleagues excavate at Tianluoshan site, China.

Atayal villager wearing traditional headdress. Austronesian cultures have persisted in Taiwan for more than 5,000 years. Modern day groups such as the Paiwan and Atayal share characteristics of Austronesian cultures in Oceania, including an emphasis on hunting, slash and burn agriculture, the practice of bodily ornamentation to signify one’s rank and status, and the creation of craft goods for exchange.

Bishop Museum’s Yosihiko Sinoto at the Fa‘ahia excavation on Huahine, Society Islands. Dr. Sinoto stands next to the well-preserved canoe mast found there.

Christophe Sand at the excavation of the Foue site, New Caledonia in 1995. Around 3,500 years ago, a new cultural group moved eastward through the Pacific and settled as far as Sāmoa. These settlers were called Lapita people after their distinctive stamped and decorated pottery found at their house sites and work areas.

When Bishop Museum’s newly renamed Pacific Hall reopens next fall, visitors will be enthralled by a new focus on discovering and telling stories through an archaeological approach. A natural expectation for an institution more than 123 years old, and one with a deep history of anthropological research throughout the Pacific where Bishop Museum was at the forefront of field work and research, one would think!

Formerly known as Polynesian Hall, the renovated and upgraded Pacific Hall will feature major archaeological discoveries made by the Museum’s archaeologists over the past century. Most of these finds have never been displayed to the public before, or explained in such a way to excite and teach the average museum visitor. The renewed Pacific Hall will do just that.

The Pacific story on the upper floor of the hall will be completely delivered through the vehicles of anthropological research and archaeological field work. Bishop Museum archaeologists have conducted extensive archaeological investigations in Polynesia. Pacific Hall will feature the classic finds of Dr. Kenneth Emory and Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto from the Society Islands and the Marquesas Islands. Important archaeological materials from key sites in Hawai‘i will also be featured.

Polynesians and many other Pacific cultural groups speak languages that belong to a family that anthropologists call “Austronesian.” Most scientists believe that proto-Austronesian peoples developed in mainland southeast China and Taiwan between 5,000–7,000 years ago. With a lifestyle oriented towards the ocean, proto-Austronesian peoples interacted with each other along the coast and across the Taiwan Strait through seafaring. These cultures manufactured sophisticated ceramics, stone adzes, and canoes. They lived by farming, hunting, and fishing. Their voyaging is associated with the earliest phase of the extraordinary seafaring expansion in the Pacific.

Austronesians introduced the primary components of the Lapita culture, settling both Near and Remote Oceania around 3,500 years ago. Lapita refers to an early Pacific culture believed by many archaeologists to be the common ancestor of several cultures in Polynesia, Micronesia, and some coastal areas of Melanesia. The term is applied to distinguishing geometric dentate-stamped pottery first found at New Caledonia in 1952 by American archaeologists Edward W. Gifford and Richard Shulter, Jr. The new exhibit will feature the replica of the extraordinary pottery from a number of Lapita sites.

Research and field work evidence indicate purposeful settlement with the aid of simple water craft. Near Oceania became a “voyaging nursery” where navigational concepts and technological innovations were developed. This set the stage for the tremendous burst of voyaging that resulted in the settlement of the more distant islands of Remote Oceania, including western Polynesia, by Lapita peoples who spoke Austronesian languages.

The second floor of Pacific Hall will showcase new archaeological finds from major proto-Austronesian sites on mainland China and the island of Taiwan. It includes a replica of canoe paddle that is 7,000 years old, one of the earliest paddles in the world. Replica of pottery from the Damaoshan site in Fujian Province, made 4,300–5,000 years ago and recently excavated by Bishop Museum’s archaeologist Dr. Tianlong Jiao, will be also be featured.

This floor of Pacific Hall will not only be filled with information gathered by Museum staff and others over recent decades. Display and interactive stations will present the process through which information is uncovered and theories are formed. There will be a stratigraphy display— a slice of an archaeological field pit that demonstrates how items collected from layers of soil and time provide evidence of activities at that site over past decades and centuries. Visitors will also learn how languages and cultural materials from the vast Pacific are studied, and the manner in which comparative analysis provides clues on Pacific migrations and interactions that took place in early times.

Less than a year away—look forward to experiencing the beauty and flawless craftsmanship of unique oceanic artifacts from Bishop Museum’s world-renowned collections. Anticipate learning about how researchers uncover the knowledge of the past through the fascinating field of anthropology. Be prepared to be held captivated at the reopening of Pacific Hall!

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