A Re-evaluation Of Some Aberrant Art From Rapa Nui.*

By: Donald P. Ryan

     The island of Rapa Nui is internationally celebrated for its large stone sculptures, the moai. Much attention has been directed at various aspects of these remarkable statues, including studies of their form, function and transport. In this paper, I wish to address the subject of a group of stone carvings at the other end of the size spectrum, the moai maea, or small portable stone sculptures. These objects are not particularly well-known; and relatively few could be found in collections until 1956 when nearly a thousand examples of such were acquired during the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island. Unfortunately, these objects have received very little attention, and in this article I hope to address some of the questions and misconceptions surrounding them and to briefly describe their nature.

     First of all, I should make it clear that the existence of moai maea did not originate with the Norwegian Expedition, but were noted on several occasions during the 19th century. The 1870 Gana expedition, for example acquired several moai maea including examples of stone plaques with figures in high relief and three-dimensional sculptures (Heyerdahl 1979 pp.20-21). A visit by the French warship La Flore two years later likewise resulted in the acquisition of small stone images (Heyerdahl 1975 pp.53-56). In 1882, Geiseler collected some moai maea and provided the following commentary:

"These idols always remain in their huts like family idols, of which each family possesses at least one; the wooden idols are taken along to festivals." (Ayres and Ayres 1995 p.66).

    Paymaster William Thomson, a visitor to the island in 1886 with the US Mohican, recorded the following observations:

"The small wooden and stone images known as `household gods' were made to represent certain spirits and belong to a different order from the gods, though accredited with many of the same attributes. They occupied a prominent place in every dwelling and were regarded as the medium through which communication might be made with spirits, but were never worshipped." (Thomson 1891 p.470)

As should be emphasized, these examples of moai maea were observed and collected in the 19th century. Being portable, however, they were subject by their owners to being moved for safe-keeping, storage or other purposes. Many of the objects mentioned above can be found in museums in Europe, South America and the United States.1

     The 1955/56 Norwegian Expedition obtained nearly a thousand small stone carvings, the majority of which had been stored or displayed in inheritable private family caves. The existence of secret caves on Easter Island has long been recognized. Roggeveen, who in 1722 was the first known European to have encountered the island, suspected their presence, and their existence was well-noted by subsequent visitors (Heyerdahl 1975 pp.78-81, 148-150). The circumstances under which the Norwegian Expedition's objects were collected were very complex and are described in detail in an article entitled, "Cave disclosures to the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition in 1955/56" as published in Heyerdahl's 1975 volume, Art of Easter Island (1976). A general, popularized version was presented in the book, Aku-Aku (Heyerdahl 1958). Additionally, expedition member and archaeologist Edwin Ferdon provided his version of events in his expedition narrative entitled One Man's Log (Ferdon 1966). In short, the sculptures were obtained through a very complex series of personal interactions involving gift-giving, barter and purchase.

A sample of moai maea in the Kon-Tiki Museum Collection. Left to Right: Bearded Long-Eared Image (K-T 2098); Whale (K-T 1891); Mask or Face (K-T 1818).


     As mentioned earlier, although a great number of these objects were obtained, they remain very little studied. I suspect that the primary reason for this situation is the existence of several persistent rumors involving their manufacture and date. Some of these rumors include the notions that gullible expedition members were persistently fooled by local artisans, or that the foreigners believed uncritically that they were consistently obtaining objects of great antiquity (e.g. Conniff 1993 p.78). These rumors are woefully incorrect. Having carefully reviewed Heyerdahl's own comments, and having interviewed him and Edwin Ferdon regarding these controversies, I am convinced that the archaeologists themselves were very wary of the possibility that they might be being hoaxed. Some of the visits to private caves revealed intentional displays of objects, which though interesting, gave no particular indication of antiquity apart from their unusual artistic themes and craftsmanship that wasn't apparent on the island at the time. In fact, it was well-known that some recently manufactured sculptures were being presented as old, and ironically in a few cases, older sculptures presented as new. A number of sculptures, however, exhibited patina, organic surface growth or exterior dust accumulations which appeared to be of natural origin, which indicated that they were very likely not manufactured during the time of the Expedition's tenure on the Island. In fact, a few of the cave owners claimed that some of the objects had been carved by their grandfathers, perhaps placing their manufacture in the latter part of the 19th century.

The secret cave of Atan Atan with a collection of moai maea.

     It was well-known amongst the investigators that there were certain Islanders who were manufacturing stone sculptures for the purpose of duping expedition members and the objects were suspiciously examined for signs of such. While some caves and their contents were clearly manipulated for the foreigners, there were others that indicated their contents had remained undisturbed for a sufficiently long time for, at least in one case, their exterior reed containers to disintegrate and for the sculptures to accumulate dust or organic growth. In other words, yes, some of the sculptures were manufactured during the time of the expedition, while many others were clearly not.2 The issue of age is a difficult one. Stone sculptures in general are notoriously hard to date, so at this time it is not easy to ascribe specific ages to these objects. There are, though, several sculptures representing post-missionary themes such as rabbits and horses thus indicating a post-mid-19th century date.3 The possibility that others of these objects might indeed possess an interesting degree of antiquity, however, cannot be ruled out.

Relatively recent sculptures. On the left, a rabbit theme indicating a post-19th century date for the particular piece (K-T 1723), and on the right, an example of commerical tourist carving c.1955.


     In 1964, Henri Lavachery was one of the few to examine these objects where they are housed today in the in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway (Lavachery 1965 pp.156-159, 1975 p.13). He wrote:

"With the exception of some pieces which depicted unique and extraordinary objects, most of these sculptures were represented by a series often or more examples. Each series offered one, two, or occasionally three prototypes which were finer and better executed, and presented traces of surface erosion. Once could recognize traces of roots on some statues which must have been deposited on the ground, as well as spots of lichen. These pieces were, in my opinion, old. Although we have no scientific means of determining the exact age, they could well antedate the visit of our Franco-Belgian expedition in 1934. The others were cruder, either copies of the former, or later imitations made without access to the model. In fact, Heyerdahl had himself almost instantly realized that the latter category contained modern products, due to their great contrast in execution and patina." (Lavachery 1976 p.13)

       The diversity of the themes represented in moai maea is also interesting. Alfred Métraux, in his Ethnology of Easter Island, wrote:

"Though modern natives carve hundreds of small stone images, those which really belong to the old culture are rare and cannot be regarded as a normal expression of the local art." (1940 p.299)

Unfortunately, I must disagree with Métraux in terms of his categorization of "normalcy" in Easter Island art. If one comprehensively examines the corpus of portable sculpture in both wood and stone, along with other materials such as tapa, one is confronted with the incredible diversity of artistic themes. Heyerdahl's Art of Easter Island contains such a corpus and, in fact, serves as a useful source-book for contemporary Island artists. The themes regularly transcend the traditional categories ascribed to Island art such as moai kavakava, moai tangata manu, etc. The observation of artistic diversity on the Island is more readily apparent and accessible in the Island's petroglyphs in which studies by Lavachery (1939) and by Lee (1992) are outstanding examples. I agree with Heyerdahl when he writes:

"Contrary to previous assumptions, it can safely be concluded that diversity rather than conformity typifies the aboriginal local art." (Heyerdahl 1979 p.29)

Reed Boat with opposed heads. (K-T 1344)


     That some of these objects might be of a cult nature can also be suggested by their artistic themes. There are several representations of human skulls which contain a pecked circular depression on the cranium.4 The explanations provided by the owners was that they were for the purpose of containing powdered human bones. Several of the caves containing the moai maea also held burials.

Examples of skull sculptures from private caves on Rapa Nui. Left, K-T 1816; Right, K-T 2223 with cup-shaped depression on cranium and bird relief.



     What might these objects collected by the Norwegian Expedition represent? I've already mentioned the comments of some of the 19th century visitors and here are a few more suggestions: It's possible that some of these sculptures are 19th century trade objects which were stored in caves for safe-keeping. If this is the case, however, there was a surplus and the often bizarre themes depicted would be arguably of less appeal to visitors than say the traditional moai kavakava , and so forth. Another possibility is that these objects are models of themes previously represented in wood, and given the limited longevity of wooden objects, and the scarcity of wood, stone was turned to as a more permanent medium. Yet another idea: whereas the missionaries compelled the Islanders to burn or otherwise destroy the wooden cult images and rongo-rongo tablets, perhaps the hidden stone images represent an attempt to shelter the old from the intrusive and transformative new.

Let me summarize some of my points as follows:

     In the title of my paper, I used the term "aberrant art", a term which I feel is appropriate given that the cave sculptures remain controversial, if not confounding. Edwin Ferdon offers the following insightful perspective:

"That this tradition of small stone sculpture had not found its way to museum shelves or the sophisticated propos of primitive art galleries was quite probably because wood carving and Polynesia had always been synonymous in the minds of Pacific Island experts. Actually, small stone carving is not unique to Easter Island, since it has been found on Raivavae, Tahiti, and in the Marquesas. The difference, however, is the quantity and wide range of subject matter of the Easter Island specimens, not to mention their magnificent freedom of expression...However, the new and the old Easter Island stone sculpture should be a revelation to the world of art." (Ferdon 1966 p.123).

     Unfortunately, thus far it has not. Much remains to be studied of this interesting collection including a detailed analysis of motifs, relative chronology and assemblage patterns. In short, regardless of the age or circumstances, the moai maea collected by the Norwegian Expedition and others before represent a genuine Rapa Nui art phenomenon.


* Paper presented at Pacific 2000: International Congress of Easter Island and South Pacific Studies, August 2000, Hawai'i

1 See the "Catalogue of aberrant stone carvings collected prior to the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island in 1955/56" in Heyerdahl (1975 pp.309-326 and associated plates).

2 Several of these recently manufactured objects are illustrated in The Art of Easter Island.

3 e.g. Heyerdahl (1975 pls. 234-235).

4 Examples of carved stone crania in the Kon-Tiki Museum can be found in Heyerdahl (1975 pls. 195-200).


I would like to thank Thor Heyerdahl and Edwin Ferdon for their comments on the subject of this paper and I likewise extend my gratitude to the Board, Director and Staff of the Kon-Tiki Museum.


Ayres, Willam S. and Gabriella S. Ayres, editors and translators
1995 "Geiseler's Easter Island Report: an 1880's anthropological report." University of Hawai'i Asian and Pacific Archaeology Series 12.

Conniff, Richard

1993 "Easter Island revealed." National Geographic 183(3):54-79.

Ferdon, Edwin

1966 One Man's Log. Rand McNally, New York.

Heyerdahl, Thor

1958 Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. Allen and Unwin, London.
1975 The Art of Easter Island. Doubleday Garden City, New York.
1979 "The heterogeneity of small sculptures on Easter Island before 1886. Asian Perspectives 22(1):9-31.

Lavachery, Henri

1939 Les Pétroglyphes de I'Ille de Paques. Antwerp: De Sikkel.
1965 "Thor Heyerdahl et le Pacifique." Journal de la Société des Océanistes 12(21):151-159.
1976 "Foreword.". In, Thor Heyerdahl, The Art of Easter Island, Allen and Unwin:London, pp.11-15.

Lee, Georgia

1992 Symbols of Power, Prayers to the gods. UCLA Institute of Archaeology Monumenta Archaeologica 17.

Métraux, Alfred

1940 Ethnology of Easter Island. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Thompson, W.J.

1891 "Te Pito Te Henua, or Easter Island. Report of the U.S. National Museum for the Year Ending June 30, 1889, 447-552. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


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