Institute of Archaeology


Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction

Rapa Nui is one of the remotest places on earth, measuring just 170 square km. It is best known for its colossal stone statues, which were carved c. AD 1000 - 1500. Many remain in the statue quarries and others were set up on stone ceremonial platforms (ahu) positioned around the coastline of the island. 

The Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction project is directed by Sue Hamilton (Principal Investigator) and Colin Richards (University of Manchester, UK: Co-Investigator) in collaboration with Bournemouth University, UK (Kate Welham: Co-Investigator), the Chilean National Parks Authority, Rapa Nui (Susana Nahoe) and the Museo Antropologico Padre Sebastian Englert, Rapa Nui (Francisco Torres H.). The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), University of Highlands and Islands is a Project Partner. Funding has been provided by the AHRC (2011-17) and the British Academy (2009).

The project aims to develop new interpretations on the organisation and meaning of these monumental construction activities and to unify the hitherto isolated research foci - of statue quarries, statue transport roads, and ahu, into an integrated Island-wide programme of landscape study, survey and excavation.

Central to this research is the idea that construction is a social process. In particular, the Project is investigating the resources, locations, construction elements and conceptual aspects that link the different places associated with the statues, from their carving in the quarries through their transport along roads to their final positioning on ceremonial platforms.

The Project's more detailed aims are:

  • To date the chronology of statue quarrying, and compare it with known construction chronologies of the ahu .The longevity of Rapa Nui's statue production is a focus of debate. We aim to date through survey and excavation the key phases of the statue quarry of Rano Raraku, and of Puna Pau - the quarry for the large red 'hats' (pukao) that adorned the moai on the ahu.
  • To explore the social organisation of Rapa Nui's monumental construction, particularly the organisation of quarrying. Visual inspection suggests that main quarries were divided into distinct clusters of working units. We will investigate this through surface survey and geotechnical survey.
  • To better understand the relationships between the landscape locations of statue quarrying, statue transport and ahu with statues. Past work has had a focus on characterising architectural components and scuptural forms of Rapa Nui's monuments. Our work instead focuses on the architecture, statues and quarries as situated in landscape places and considers their topographic positions as conceptually interlinked.
  • For the processes and results of our work to transcend single methodological and academic traditions of the interpretation and public understandings of Rapa Nui's archaeology, and in doing so to aid broadly-informed management of the Rapanuian landscape and support Rapanuians in the self-determination of their own heritage.

Related outputs

Selected publications

  • Armstrong, F., Hamilton, S., Haoa, S., Scaife, R. Seager Thomas, M., Tepano, P. Survey on Poike. 2016. UCL Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project (LOC13). Access the full report here.
  • Armstrong, F., Hamilton, S., Haoa, S., Scaife, R., Seager Thomas, M., Tepano, P. Prospección en Poike, 2016. UCL Proyecto Rapa Nui Paisajes de Construcción (LOC13). Access the full report here.
  • Hamilton, S., Richards, C. 2013. Wrapping another world: the hare paenga and the archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In Heitman, C., Kahn, J. (Eds.), Holy Houses: transformations and meanings of domestic space. University of Florida Press.
  • Hamilton, S., Whitehouse, R., Seager Thomas, M., Hicks, D. 2013. Easter Island and Pitcairn. In Hicks, D., Stephenson, A. (Eds.), World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Hamilton,S., Seager Thomas, M., Whitehouse, R. 2011. Say it with stone: constructing with stones on Easter Island. World Archaeology 43: 2, 167-190.
  • Richards, C., Croucher, K., Paoa, T., Parish, T., Tucki M., E., Welham. K. 2011. Road my body goes: re-creating ancestors from stone at the great moai quarry of Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). World Archaeology 43: 2, 191-210.
  • Hamilton,S. 2010. Back to the sea: the ahu landscapes of Rapa Nui in Eds. P. Wallin and H. Martinsson-Wallin The Gotland Papers. Selected Papers from the VII International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific: Migration, Identity, and Cultural Heritage. Gotland University in collaboration with Easter Island Foundation, Sweden, August 20-25. Gotland University Press 11: 167-180.
  • Hamilton,S., Nahoe,S., Torres,H.F., Richards,C. 2008. Quarried away. Thinking about Landscapes of Megalithic Construction on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Chapter 16 in Bruno, D., Thomas,J. (eds) Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. World Archaeological Congress Research Handbooks in Archaeology series. Series edited by Nicholas,G., Hollowell,J.. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 176-186. ISBN: 978-1-59874-294-7
  • Hamilton,S. 2008. Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction. Archaeology International 10, 49-53
  • Richards, C. 2010. The Road of the Winds: journeying by sea and road in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Eds. P. Wallin and H. Martinsson-Wallin The Gotland Papers. Selected Papers from the VII International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific: Migration, Identity, and Cultural Heritage. Gotland University in collaboration with Easter Island Foundation, Sweden, August 20-25. Gotland University Press 11.
  • Richards, C. 2008. The substance of Polynesian voyaging: materiality, identity and social practices. World Archaeology 40:206-223

Engagement activities

Working with the Rapanui National Parks (CONAF):

  • To improve the information boards at the key archaeological sites
  • To better locate visitor access to the quarry sites taking into account the locations of buried statues and quarry workings
  • To train CONAF Park Rangers in laser scanning (to monitor deterioration of stone statues and rock engravings) and other prospecting techniques for locating buried archaeology
  • To consider the issues of recurrent fires in the National Park area

Contributing to the local understanding of the Island's heritage by:

  • Making our work publically available by depositing its results in a digital form at the Island's Museum (MAPSE)
  • Presenting our work at public lectures on the Island
  • Working with Rapa Nui's school children - having them visit and participate in our fieldwork
  • Having Rapanuians working on our project
  • Collaborating with the Island's museum (MAPSE)
  • Generating an international public profile for our work as an aid to better informing the general public about the Island's past, the global issues that it touches upon, and that present-day threats to its fragile heritage


  • AHRC
  • British Academy
  • Bank of Santander