Back to Book Reviews

Safonfok, Kosrae: Emergence of Complexity - An archaeological investigation of prehistoric settlement in East Micronesia by FELICIA BEARDSLEY
BAR International Series 1366. 2005. 118 pages, 31 figures, 5 tables. ISBN 1 84171 808 4 (£27)

This volume is essentially a site report detailing the excavation of the prehistoric monumental site of Safonfok on Kosrae Island in Mirconesia, occupied from around A.D. 1200 to 1600. The subtitle to the book, ‘emergence of complexity’ does not however, live up to expectation. The major findings of the fieldwork at Kosrae was the recovery of a deeper than expected cultural deposit and a number of fish hooks and fish hook blanks made from coral. The real strength of this book is the material culture analysis which provides an interesting insight into the range of tools and items used in this part of the Pacific in late Prehistory. Its major weakness is that it tries to do too much and falls short of the huge array of research questions served up in the third chapter.

The book is divided into six chapters and follows tradition beginning with a detailed account of the current environment, ecology and environmental history of the island. There is plenty of background information here to provide a sense of place, which is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. The second part of this section incorporates a detailed, and interesting, section of oral histories and historic observations made at the time of western observation, if not contact, that begins in the sixteenth century. Detailed observation of island life and archaeology is initiated in 1910 with the arrival of the German South Seas Expedition.

Following the background sections is the research design and the rationale behind selection of the research questions, which they refer to as ‘research domains’ (page 24). I found this section to be a bit long-winded, posed a large number of interesting research questions, but ultimately delivered on few. In several places the text on research methods reads more like a first year instructional manual, rather than a clear, concise statement on what was attempted, why, and how they will achieve the objectives stated. The whole could have been much shorter, but its published form may stem from the history of the project as field training for student archaeologists, reflecting their important involvement throughout all phases of the work.

Fieldwork was conducted in 1999 and 2001 in combination with students and archaeological staff on the island who mapped surface features and cleared vegetation. In some places here the text reads a bit more like an adventure story rather than a discussion of what was achieved. With little to go on, would they find anything worth excavating? How disturbed was the site? Would the team prevail? I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, as archaeology can get a bit on the dry side, however, I found the conversational tone a bit irritating by the end. The fieldwork section, written as a chronological narrative (which I also found frustrating) suffers, unfortunately, from some poor graphic reproduction and a few mistakes. The main site plan (figure 11, page 33) is difficult to read and the scale is such that excavation squares are too small and cryptic and the internal numbering system impossible to resolve. Figure 17 on page 42 suffers the same problem. The black & white photographs on page 36 are likewise a bit cryptic, and it is very hard to discern the important features. These could have benefited with some instructive labelling. I am sure that figure 14 (page 38) suffers from a typographic error in the scale which is given in metres rather than centimetres? Table 1 lists the excavation units (squares) on page 39 but only shows squares excavated during 2001. Units from 1999 are not listed here though they appear in figure 11. A larger organising system termed ‘Blocks’ is also mentioned here, but does not figure on any plan, even though they become the major zones of excavation.

A wide range of material was recovered from the rich cultural deposits of Kosrae that included coral fish hooks, Tridacna sp. and Terebra sp. shell adzes, Lambis sp. drills, fishing related equipment including sinkers and net weights, shell beads, shell scrapers, and coral abraders. The discussion of the material culture recovered is detailed, particularly that relating to fishing technology and the shell adzes, and shell beads. Enough material was recovered from these excavations to demonstrate that coral fish hooks and shell adzes were all in production at the site, and a valuable collection of material showing all stages in the manufacture of shell beads was also recovered. This section is nicely detailed and will definitely be of value to scholars in this area of research. A great deal is made of the recovery of fish hooks made from coral – the first time this has occurred in an archaeological excavation – and subsequent claims to raise Kosrae to the status of a ‘type site’ in the region. A point that was repeated so many times throughout the text it ended up sounding more like a plea than a statement. And while the premier find of the site is interesting, coral fish hooks are known from historical documents (page 44), and apparently made from every other conceivable material including wood, bone, tooth, tusk, shell, turtle carapace, plant thorns, insect parts, stone, coconut shell and iron (page 44). So why not coral? And what does this actually say about the emergence of complexity?

One of the main sticking points of this monograph for me was the attempt to blend ethnography with archaeology into a seamless historical narrative about Safonfok and its role in the wider Pacific world. It remains unclear to me whether the author puts more weight in the interpretation of historical information, which includes oral histories or in the recovery of material from the archaeological excavation. A pre-built ethnographic model of site function lurks throughout. Oral history and ethnography is used to interpret structural remains and artefact function, such as a chopper and mortar (page 57) interpreted as the tools of skilled artisan practicing medicine (page 63). The information on tool function came direct from a local informant who remembered the function of a similar object by his grandmother (page 57). While important to record and interesting, one is surely on dangerous ground if this information is fed, uncritically, straight back into interpretation of, not just artefact but site function, as was done here. In the final chapter Safonfok is interpreted as a high status site (based partly on the archaeology and primarily on historic information), and seen as the focal point of political and religious power which ‘controlled production industries and other proprietary knowledge (such as medicine)’ (page 65). What if this object was not actually used for the production of medicine? In fact, the archaeology becomes relatively unimportant as historic narrative is used to support itself in a closed loop (items such as medicine stones are even pre-empted on page 26 under ‘Research Objectives’) and archaeology remains the handmaid of history. There are other examples of this practice involving the major structural elements of the site, such as spaces interpreted as rooms to house artisans and foreign dignitaries (page 65). Which is a shame, and I am sure not what the author intended. I think the book is a brave attempt to incorporate the rich history and living culture of Kosrae into an archaeological interpretation of the past, giving voice and validity to the current inhabitants of the island. I just don’t think you can do this in practice. No matter how much you want someone to own their past, archaeology needs its own theoretical space in which to operate. Short-term social histories may not be an appropriate analogy, even if the site is only 800 to 400 years old.

In dealing with the major archaeological remains in Chapter 5, I also get a sense that frequency is mistakenly associated with importance or value. At Safonfok stone artefacts occur in low frequency (ignoring the stone used in construction) such that we read ‘Stone was not a raw material of choice; marine resources such as coral and shell were’ (page 58). However, the ‘medicine chopper and mortar’ were made from basalt, as was a unique triangular backed knife (pages 57-58). Maybe stone was a material of choice – it just functioned in a different social realm than marine resources that were used for more utilitarian functions?

In several places in the text we are told that ‘archaeology is not conducted in a vacuum’ which is good news for those of us that breathe oxygen, though you may find yourself needing some in places – perhaps this is a site report that tries to do too much. It never really address its own sub-title ‘the emergence of complexity’ with only two paragraphs devoted to this topic at the very end of the book. The description of the site and of the material recovered is well handled (despite the limitations of the figures), and the site clearly contains a rich material record that is well dated, and will be of interest to anyone working in the region.

Huw Barton
University of Leicester

Review Submitted: October 2005

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page