Field Museum scientists solve riddle of mysterious faces on South Pacific artifacts

Decipher their hidden meaning and religious significance



John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum, and Esther M. Schechter, a research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the Field Museum, have pieced together...
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CHICAGO—The strange faces drawn on the first pottery made in the South Pacific more than 3,000 years ago have always been a mystery to scientists. Now their riddle may have been solved by new research done by two Field Museum scientists to be published in the February 2007 issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

What archaeologists working in the Pacific call prehistoric "Lapita" pottery has been found at more than 180 different places on tropical islands located in a broad arc of the southwestern Pacific from Papua New Guinea to Samoa.

Experts have long viewed the faces sometimes sketched by ancient potters on this pottery ware as almost certainly human in appearance, and they have considered them to be a sign that Pacific Islanders long ago may have worshiped their ancestors.

John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, and Esther M. Schechter, a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at The Field Museum, have pieced together evidence of several kinds leading to a radically different understanding of the religious life of people in the South Pacific 3,000 years ago. Most of these mysterious faces, they report, may represent sea turtles. Furthermore, these ceramic portraits may be showing us ideas held by early Pacific Islanders about the origins of humankind.

Terrell and Schechter say the evidence they have assembled also shows that these religious ideas did not die when people in the Pacific stopped making Lapita pottery about 2,500 years ago. They have not only identified this expressive symbolism on prehistoric pottery excavated several years ago by Terrell and other archaeologists at Aitape on the Sepik Coast of northern New Guinea, but they have also found this type of iconography on wooden bowls and platters collected at present-day villages on this coast that are now safeguarded in The Field Museum's rich anthropological collections.

Terrell and Schechter's discovery suggests that a folktale recorded by others on this coast in the early 1970s—a story about a great sea turtle (the mother of all sea turtles) and the origins long ago of the first island, the first man, and the first woman on earth—might be thousands of years old. This legend may once have been as spiritually important to Pacific Islanders as the Biblical story of Adam and Eve has been in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

"Nothing we had been doing in New Guinea for years had prepared us for this discovery," Terrell explained. "We have now been able to describe for the first time four kinds of prehistoric pottery from the Sepik coast that when considered in series fill the temporal gap between practices and beliefs in Lapita times and the present day.

"A plausible reason for the persistence of this iconography is that it has referenced ideas about the living and the dead, the human and the divine, and the individual and society that remained socially and spiritually profound and worthy of expression long after the demise of Lapita as a distinct ceramic style," Terrell added.

More research needed

Terrell and Schechter acknowledge that more work must be done to pin down their unexpected discovery. Nevertheless, it now looks like they have not only deciphered the ancient "Lapita code" inscribed on pottery vessels in the south Pacific thousands of yeas ago, but by so doing, may have rescued one of the oldest religious beliefs of Pacific Islanders from the brink of oblivion.

"I was skeptical for a long time about connecting these designs with sea turtles," Schechter said, "but then the conservation biologist Regina Woodrom Luna in Hawaii pointed out that some of the designs match the distinctive beach tracks that a Green sea turtle makes when she is coming ashore to lay her eggs.

"Everything made even more sense when we came across the creation story about a great sea turtle and the first man and woman on earth," she added. "This story comes from a village only 75 miles away from where The Field Museum is working on the same coast of Papua New Guinea."

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For a full account of this discovery, see the February 2007 issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal at http://www.cambridge.org/journals/journal_catalogue.asp"mnemonic=CAJ or contact Greg Borzo, The Field Museum's Media Manager of Scientific Affairs, at 312-665-7106; gborzo@fieldmuseum.org.

Digital images available:
Mysterious Lapita face
The "Lapita face" has befuddled scientists for centuries. Here you can see these strange faces as they were drawn thousands of years ago on a (partially reconstructed) pottery vessel found by archaeologists on the Foué Peninsula of New Caledonia. A new study to be published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal concludes that faces such as these are those of sea turtles, not human beings.
Illustration by Christophe Sand, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Wooden bowl decorated with a sea turtle
This modern wooden bowl from Tarawai Island just off the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea has a turtle carved on it, and is part of the evidence showing the continuity in this design in the South Pacific over the past 3,000 years. This bowl is in The Field Museum's rich South Pacific collections.
Photo by John Weinstein; Courtesy of The Field Museum

Field Museum scientists
John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, and Esther M. Schechter, a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at The Field Museum, have pieced together evidence of several kinds leading to a radically different understanding of the religious life of people in the South Pacific 3,000 years ago.
Photo by John Weinstein; Courtesy of The Field Museum


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