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Pōhaku (Rocks)


Pōhaku of Hawai‘i

Across the Pacific Ocean, islands are often composed of volcanic rock, providing the very foundation to support life on land in the midst of the largest ocean on the planet. Lava rock, often referred to in ʻŌlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) as pōhaku, is not only the core of our islands, but a core resource for many purposes in Hawaiian and Oceanic culture.


Pōhaku: Rocks in Hawaiian History

Rising tthe Clouds, They Greeted the First Arrivals 


Pōhaku: Rocks, Stones, & Geology

There are many different rocks in the world. And each type behaves differently under different conditions. Pressure, heat, and erosion are just a few of the conditions that can be applied to rocks, and they can become different types of rocks according to the Rock Cycle. Check out the PODCAST and Rock Cycle Game to learn more about the process of the rock cycle and the different types of rocks it produces before creating your very own edible rock cycle! 

a brochure with a white background and a circular background.

Edible Rock Cycle Activity

After learning about the rock cycle, check out this fun activity using Starburst candies to create your own edible rock cycle!

the rock cycle game on a computer screen.

Rock Cycle Activity

Use PowerPoint to follow the path a rock takes to change type.

a paper with a question mark on it.

Rock Cycle Lesson Plan

In this lesson, students will explore theories of island formation based upon evidence in the geosphere. They will investigate Hawaiian igneous rock by participating in hands-on activities with rock samples and using models to demonstrate the rock cycle.

Rock Cycle Podcast

Play the podcast and reference the images below while listening.

Pōhaku: Rocks in Space

There are many different types of rocks in space, from asteroids to moons to planets. Here are some resources to help you learn about them!

an image of an object in the sky.

Asteroid Mining Activity

In this activity, learners will imagine the challenges and opportunities of asteroid mining. Learners will draw their own asteroid mining machines, and consider how these devices would extract, process, and return mined materials to Earth. They can also assume roles assigned by the activity’s “challenge cards,” and imagine what concerns or priorities they might have as a scientist, explorer, lawyer, or engineer. Download all four files to do the activity! Recommended for ages 4 and up.

Meteor Showers Video

Have you ever seen a shooting star? Learn about what causes meteor showers in this short video and then go to to find when the next meteor shower occurs and dates for other showers this year.  

The Rocky Inner Planets Video

Blast off from Earth and discover what makes the rocky inner planets of our solar system so amazing! 

Be a Part of Our Story

Celebrate the extraordinary history, culture, and environment of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific with a gift to Bishop Museum. As a partner in the Museum’s work, you can help to sustain vital collections, research, and knowledge, and inspire exploration and discovery with a tax-deductible donation.

a painting of a mountain with clouds in the sky.

Rising to the clouds, they greeted the first arrivals 

Over a thousand years ago, the first wave of settlers from the Central Pacific were greeted by rising mountains and chiseled ocean cliffs made of basalt rock. In traditional stories of creation, the islands of Hawaiʻi were birthed by akua (deities) or discovered by chiefly voyagers. From a geological perspective, the islands were created by a hotspot in the Pacific Ocean which allowed molten rock to flow up from the Earth’s core, cooling to form the land we know today. In chiefly genealogies, Hawaiʻi Island is the eldest of its siblings, but Kauaʻi is geologically the oldest, roughly five million years old. The youngest in geological time is Hawaiʻi Island, just over one million years old. In addition to their cultural significance to Native Hawaiians, Hawaiʻi’s volcanoes were a favorite subject for many artists of the nineteenth century. This portrait of Mauna Loa during her 18801881 eruption period hangs in the third floor Picture Gallery of the Hawaiian Hall Complex. 

a display case with rocks and other items.


Many Pacific Island cultures rely on pōhaku (stone) to provide materials for everyday life. In Hawaiʻi, pōhaku became kiʻi (images of deities), kāheka (saltpans), mea kuʻi ʻai (food pounders), and especially koʻi (adzes). A master carver could use koʻi to fashion not only the basic items needed by the community, but treasures which would stand the passage of time and speak to the ability and skill of such experts, called kahuna in Hawaiian. Waʻa (canoes), papa kuʻi ʻai (food pounding boards), hale pili (houses thatched with pili grass), mea mahiʻai (farming implements), mea lawaiʻa (fishing implements) and mea kaua (weapons) are a few of the things that can be made by the skilled use of koʻi.

a large stone building with stairs leading up to it.

Bishop Hall

The oldest structure on the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum campus also has the distinction of being the last standing building of the original Kamehameha School site. The Kamehameha School for Boys opened in October 1887 at Kaiwiʻula, the traditional name for the area where the Museum stands to this day, and the location of Bishop Hall was selected the same year. Bishop Hall was one of the first structures in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi built using native lava rock as a major architectural component and featuring one of the first electrical systems utilized in Hawaiʻi, after the reconstruction of ʻIolani Palace. The majority of this basalt was quarried locally within the neighboring area of Kapālama.

a large brick building with a clock tower.

Hawaiian Hall Complex

Much like her older sibling, Bishop Hall, the Hawaiian Hall Complex is also constructed of locally-quarried basalt stone, sometimes referred to as “Kamehameha blue stone.” While the first galleries of Hawaiian Hall initially opened in 1891, within a decade Polynesian Hall and the major three-story portion of the Hawaiian Hall structure were added to complete the Museum’s main building. More than a century later, two major restorations of the complex resulted in finishing touches added to Hawaiian Hall to house nearly 3,000 artifacts from Hawaiʻi and the Pacific, and the renaming of Polynesian Hall to Pacific Hall in 2013.

a sculpture of a bear in a glass case.

Contemporary Work

Today, Native Hawaiian artisans continue to create works of pōhaku (stone) for functional and ritual purposes. This kiʻi (image), created by renowned artist Rocky Kaʻiouliokahihikoloʻehu Jensen, represents Kanaloa, the Hawaiian akua (deity) who presides over the sea. This kiʻi of Kanaloa is one of three that were commissioned in connection with the making of Hawaiʻiloa, a double-hulled voyaging canoe, the sister ship to Hōkūleʻa. Besides stone, Jensen is also known for carving in wood and two-dimensional works, and like many living Native Hawaiian artists, his work reflects a connection that many feel between the past, present, and future.

a close up of a rock on a white surface.

Photo Credit: Granite 28 by jsjgeology on Flickr

Some rocks are at the very beginning of their story. These rocks start as new material from inside the Earth. This igneous rock—born of heat and changing pressure—starts off as magma or molten rock. When this magma cools beneath the surface where we can’t see it, it is known as intrusive igneous rock.

This slow cooling inside the Earth allows large, distinct crystals to grow, like those seen in an intrusive igneous rock called granite.

There are many types of granite, with differences in color, crystal size, and composition. This piece contains white, grey, black, and pink colored crystals. Overall, this rock has a lighter color.

Time and other forces expose intrusive rock like granite, bringing it to the surface where it can be seen and used. Granite can be seen making up the exterior of Castle Memorial Building on the Bishop Museum campus.

a display case with a rock and other items on it.

Photo credit: Connie Wong

Other times, hot magma breaks through to the Earth’s surface before it cools and hardens. We know this hot, glowing material as lava.

When the lava cools in the air or in water, it becomes a hardened lava rock.

You can find some of Earth’s youngest lava rock on the biggest Hawaiian Island, known as Hawaii Island or the Big Island. The active volcanoes there create a volcanic lava rock called basalt. All of the Hawaiian Islands are formed of this type of extrusive igneous rock.

Two types of Hawaiʻi’s basalt rock are dark in color with distinct appearances. The first is the bumpy ʻaʻā. The second is the smooth and ropy pāhoehoe. Hawaiʻi’s lava rock can be porous, with holes like a sponge, to dense, without any air pockets.

a hand holding a handful of black sand.

Photo credit: Black Sand by dannyman on Flickr

Over time, rocks break down into smaller and smaller pieces as they are worn by physical forces like wind and water. These pieces, after being transported and deposited in one place together, are called sediment. Other materials from plants and animals can also break down in in the same way. If you looked up close at sediment, you could discover its components and learn a little about its origin.

In the Hawaiian Islands, sediment from surrounding coral reefs makes up much of the white sand of Hawaiʻi’s famous beaches. Exposed black lava rock can also break down, forming the less common black sand beaches.

a close up of a rock on a white background.

Photo Credit: Coquina by National Parks Service Castillo de San Marcos

In some conditions, the spaces between individual sediment pieces are filled by binding materials or squeezed out by pressure. This transforms the loose sediment into another type of rock: the sedimentary rock.

Sedimentary rocks form from sediment particles of all shapes and sizes. Patterns of particle movement and settlement may create visible layers in the rock, like making layered rainbow gelatin. With these layers, these sedimentary rocks reflect changing conditions and the passing of time.

Hawaiʻi has sedimentary rock like sandstone and limestone, originating largely from oceanic materials. Other places around the world have a special type of limestone called coquina, seen in this photo. In coquina you can clearly find shells held together like a puffed cereal treat with marshmallows, taking the appearance of a “broken glass” gelatin treat. The number of organism shells that comprise a single piece of coquina can be staggering.

a close up of a rock formation with plants growing out of it.

Photo credit: Gneiss by National Park Service Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Even greater changes can be part of a rock’s journey. Conditions of intense heat and pressure transform existing rocks into new ones. With these forces, rocks can change in physical appearance, chemical structure, and properties.

One of the most beloved metamorphic rocks is marble. Limestone turns into this gleaming white stone, which has been chosen for constructing famous statues, monuments and buildings around the world.

Another metamorphic rock is gneiss. Gneiss, pictured here, often showcases a banded appearance, reflecting the extreme environmental stressors that create this rock.

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