Team unearths island’s ancient first ‘back road’

Saturday June 23, 2018 Written by Published in Environment
The Ara Nui o Toi played a pivotal role in Rarotonga in ancient times. 18062019. The Ara Nui o Toi played a pivotal role in Rarotonga in ancient times. 18062019.

A team of archaeologists from the United Kingdom currently visiting Rarotonga have discovered the historical Ara Nui o Toi or Ara Metua, otherwise known as the back road.

This is the third time the group has visited the Cook Islands. On a previous trip, the group travelled to Aitutaki to map out areas of archaeological interest. However, this time around, the goal was to unearth the historical Ara Metua, once regarded as “the greatest monument in all of Polynesia”, according to professor Colin Richards from the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland.

The archaeologists have been based at an excavation site at Arai Te Tonga marae for the past two weeks, meticulously sifting through dirt and coral.

“It’s basically a story of three roads” says Richards.

Earlier this week, the group finally struck paydirt, uncovering the famed coral-surfaced road, first documented by S Percy Smith in the late 19th century.

“It is about 22 or 23 miles in length, and for about two-thirds of its length is paved with flat volcanic or coral stones. Its width is about 15 to 20 feet” wrote Smith at the time.

The group also uncovered a “more recent” road, composed of compacted pieces of large coral, which they believe is the road Smith spoke of in his accounts. After digging further, the group eventually uncovered what they believe to be the original Ara Nui o Toi.

The older road is composed of many smaller pieces of coral, otherwise known as “kirkiri”, which is well compacted and complimented with coral curbing. The archaeologists estimate the construction of this road occurred “probably before the 1800s”.

“It would have looked fantastic. It would have shone white against the vegetation either side of it,” says Richards.

As a monumental circuit road, the Ara Metua provided a degree of order to the people of Rarotonga and the manner in which they encountered other people and places. Marae and koutu were placed around the road, which was pivotal to everyday operations.

The archaeologists also took some soil samples from deeper down in the earth, hoping to discover more clues as to when Rarotonga was first settled by Polynesians.

“We have been able to sequence the construction of the roads, but cannot put an exact date on when these events occurred” says professor Jane Downes, also from the University of Highlands and Islands.

However, the group is pleased to have achieved their goal of uncovering the road. They are looking forward to returning next year, after receiving funding to continue the project for another three years.

“We hope to return next year to map out the whole of the Arai Te Tonga marae” says Richards.

“It was once a grand space, with multiple buildings used for different purposes, imposing coral fences, and impressive stone statues paying homage to the gods and landscape.”

Part of the archaeologists’ research also involves consideration of the potential economic impacts traditional monuments may bring to small island nations.

“We’re really interested in the role that archaeology or monuments can play in tourism” says Downes.

With most of the road already sealed under the new back road, another focus of the group is reigniting the interest of Cook Islanders in their history and cultural beliefs. Last week, they met with representatives from Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI) to discuss how to improve the preservation of areas of cultural significance.

“The meeting with ICI went really well…we were able to discuss plans as to how to better preserve particular areas and our visit next year will involve the identification of some of these areas” says Downes.

The team departed this week, filling in the excavation site before they left. 

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