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Ceremonial Centres of the Early Micronesian States: Nan Madol and Lelu

Date of Submission: 03/01/2012
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation
State, Province or Region:
Nan Madol: Madolenihmw Municipality, Pohnpei State Lelu: Lelu Municipality, Kosrae State
Ref.: 5652
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

Nan Madol     N6 50 21 E158 19 42

Lelu                 N5 15 E163 25 

This citation relates to a serial cultural property with two component parts, Nan Madol and Lelu.

Nan Madol is a complex of archaeological sites built on a coastal reef flat near the smallTemwenIsland on the east coast of Pohnpei. It comprises a set of almost 100 stone and coral fill platforms atop artificial islets separated by narrow channels and enclosed by an outer seawall. The total area of the enclosure is 1.5 x 0.5 km (75 ha). The foundations of the islets were constructed of huge basalt boulders, on which walled enclosures were built using columnar basalt in a header and stretcher pattern in-filled with coral rubble. Some walls stand at their original height of up to 6 m.  The islets are quasi-rectangular in plan view. The largest are up to 110 x 115 m and the smallest 15 x 20 m. The largest islet enclosure, Nan Douwas, is estimated to contain 4,500 m³ of basal rock and 13,500 m³ of coral fill, with a weight of 45,000 metric tons. Nan Madol was constructed mainly in the period after 1100 AD, and served as a residential and ritual center for the highest-ranking members of society. The islets to the northeast, particularly Nan Douwas, have the strongest ritual associations, while over time all the seawall islets functioned as burial places.  Other islets were administrative and residential. The demise and abandonment of Nan Madol occurred sometime after 1500AD, possibly as the result of conquest by invaders from Kosrae, or alternatively due to the rise of a stronger political force elsewhere on Pohnpei.  Regardless, its demise correlates with the development of a very similar site on theisland ofKosrae.

Lelu was the center of settlement for the rulers of Kosrae from about A.D. 1400, when the island became unified under a highly stratified system of chiefs and commoners. The center consisted of some 100 walled compounds on small islands on the inner reef platform with a total area of about 20 ha. Today the surviving ruins consist of the walls constructed in prismatic basalt in header and stretcher fashion of some chiefly compounds, the mortuary areas of the kings constructed in coral rubble and basalt paved ceremonial platforms, one principal access canal and some paved streets. The mortuary areas incorporate a number of basalt lined burial chambers. The final mortuary practices were at the nearbyYenasrIsland. The compounds are named and their traditional associations and functions are well known. 

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In respect of criterion (i) both Nan Madol and Lelu represent globally significant masterpieces of creative genius. The exact means of engineering with which the massive stones were moved from their distant quarries, over land and water, and erected on the reef complexes is still unknown.  There is little promise that the world will ever know, but one look is all that is needed to appreciate the accomplishment.  Though there are other examples of similar structures on the two islands none is as grand as the two sites listed.    

Under criterion (iii) both Nan Madol and Lelu bear an exceptional testimony to the founding ideologies of modern Pohnpeian and Kosraean social and cultural practice. The Nanmwarki system of carefully ranked inherited leadership that still exists today is a direct product of the centralized Sau Deleur system of governance that first created Nan Madol. In Pohnpei this traditional system is still very much alive. In Kosrae depopulation and missionization had a stronger influence on the loss of culture. However, Lelu has the advantage of direct historical observations from skilled nineteenth- and twentieth-century recorders such as Duperrey and Dumont D’Urville (1824). These observations provide documentation of everyday life and the system of rule that are not available for Nan Madol which had been abandoned by the era of European exploration. Thus, both sites are exceptional testimonies to a culture that is both living and disappearing.  

Regarding criterion (iv) Nan Madol and Lelu exhibit the most perfectly preserved habitation, leadership and ceremonial plan of an architectural ensemble of the Pacific region. They represent an achieved transition from separate tribal organizations to a small state-like organization, which controlled the whole of the island area. These two sites represent two distinct phases in the development of these two islands that cover roughly 700 years of history. Very few examples exist in the prehistory of the Pacific region with which to compare this state-like organization. Traditional Pohnpeian and Kosraean society depended on the resources of the sea, hence the location of both sites by reef channels.

Under criterion (v), these two sites represent locations for the traditional systems of tribute and exchange managed by and controlled by the chiefly offices. This system ensured that all resources were distributed according to a strict hierarchy of respect. It still exists today in its modern form.  

Likewise, under criterion (vi), Nan Madol and Lelu represent profound emblems for the identity of the people of Pohnpei and Kosrae today. They are symbols of their unique heritage, which is constantly threatened by modern cultural fusion. These sites are associated with the traditional chiefly institutions, which today engage in a constant dialogue with the administrative and constitutional realities of the modern state apparatus. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Nan Madol

There has never been any reconstruction of the archaeological features of Nan Madol. Nan Douwas, the most ritually important of the islets, has the full-height coursework of prismatic basalt columns for most of its perimeter and its internal mortuary chambers. The inner islets have become somewhat degraded over the years but the outline of the islets and channels is still distinct. The purpose of each of the islets has been passed down by oral tradition, i.e. Idehd islet was used for the ritual feeding of cooked turtle to the sacred eel.  It is from this islet that the most secure radiocarbon dates come showing that the temple was used primarily from 1100-1400AD.  However minimal archaeological excavation has occurred within Nan Madol. Instead, research has focused on mapping and surface collection.  More importantly development has remained well outside the periphery with only a small path being constructed with removable wooden bridges providing access for tourists.

Subsurface coring shows when Nan Madol was alive there were no mangroves growing in its vicinity.  Since its demise, however, mangroves have come to cover nearly the entire site.  These mangroves have served to protect the site while encompassing the spirituality of the place as a ruins.  Recent consultation with an expert on mangrove growth began the development of a plan for managing these mangroves in order to provide access in a way the respects the current state of the site.  For many centuries following its abandonment it seems the site was avoided due to superstition. Later some of the tombs were robbed of their bones and whatever grave goods they may have had.  Nevertheless the tombs are fully intact and traditional protocol is in place to respect the site. 

Traditionally, the Nanmwarki Madolenimw has overseen the care of Nan Madol through his traditional ownership of the site. Ownership is held by the title and transferred to each successive Nanmwarki. This traditional system has been passed down since the end of the Sau Deleur dynasty 1400-1500AD. It is important to maintain this traditional system as tenants of criteria iv & vi. Currently, tourism is limited only to Nan Douwas and the open canals. To access these areas tourists are supposed to first ask permission from the Nanmwarki. Nan Douwas is currently being tended to by the Pohnpei Visitor’s Bureau under the permission of the Nanmwarki and the Historic Preservation Office recently completed a project to clear the islets of the larger Nan Douwas complex. Thus it is possible for the government agencies to work together with the Nanmwarki to preserve the traditional ownership while implementing government projects.

Nan Madol is on the US National Register of Historic Places (19741219 74002226) and is on the Pohnpei State Register of Historic Properties. It is protected under the Pohnpei Historic and Cultural Preservation Act 2002. FSM and Pohnpei state officials acknowledge that the Nan Madol Preservation and Management Plan (1992) needs upgrading and updating in the light of the provisions of the 2002 Act.  This work is currently underway.  

Lelu

The part of the ruins that is still intact consists of the architecturally imposing compounds of the chiefs and the mortuary areas. There has been some reconstruction of paved areas but the compound walls and the rubble-wall mortuary compounds all have high authenticity. Their form has been maintained and the knowledge of the different buildings remains.  The prismatic basalt walls of many of the ancient compounds still stand to full height.

Much of the original commoners’ settlement area towards the modern lagoon edge has been subsumed into the housing area, household cemeteries (some dating back to the early twentieth century) and roads of the modern Lelu municipality.  The landowners manage the ruins through the Lelu Ruins Association. The Historic Preservation Office contracts them to keep tree growth back and to maintain the channel and pathways. A recent visit to the site showed that this work has slowed and needs to be rejuvenated.  A meeting with the leaders of the Lelu Ruins Association was promising that this work could recommence now that the association is under new leadership.  Discussion also supported the construction of a buffer zone by removing modern development that is too close to the site.  The vegetation also seems much more manageable than at Nan Madol.

The site is also on the U.S. National Register (since 1984) and on the state register where it will be more fully protected under the new Historic Preservation Bill, not yet passed but before the legislature.

Archaeological features associated with the functioning of both of these small centers extend out from the core area being nominated.  At Nan Madol these features include areas on the small surrounding islands that would have been used in the transportation of stone.  At Lelu housing for commoners extended out into areas that are now under modern development.  In both cases these minor features have been excluded from the proposed nomination as they do not add significantly to the outstanding value of the site. 

Comparison with other similar properties

Villages built over water have been a feature of some early Austronesian settlements and can be seen in some places in island southeast Asia today. However, Nan Madol and Lelu are not villages in the normal sense. They are elite residential areas for the religious and political leaders. On some atolls, marae are sited on the patches of solid land on the fringing reef and bear some comparison functionally with Nan Madol and Lelu.  It is possible that the creation of these marae may have been influenced by the cultures of Pohnpei and Kosrae. 

In Polynesia there are several island systems that are noted for assemblages of stone-surfaced field monuments.   In Tonga the Ha`amonga Trilothon, a 12-ton gate structure built at the beginning of the 13th century, serves as one example.  It is small in comparison to Nan Madol and Lelu. Temple complexes found throughout Hawaii and Tahiti serve similar functions as the center for religious leaders. However, these complexes never grew large enough to encompass the island-wide population.

There is a qualitative difference in the scope of the construction of Nan Madol and Lelu that is comparable only to the Moai of Rapa Nui for sites in the Pacific.  These statues, though, were built as competition between villages rather than as a single centralized culture and are therefore very different. Truthfully, the real marvel of Nan Madol and Lelu was the fact that it would have required everyone on the respective islands to unite at the time that that they built.  Evidence of such unification is rare in the Pacific where most often times villages remain separate and in competition with each other.  Perhaps the only site that marks such grand unification is the royal tombs of the Tui Tonga, which are on the Tentative List for World Heritage Sites. 

Other large religious city centers may be found around the world.Tiwanaku in Peru was constructed around the same time as Nan Madol and Lelu.  Machu Picchu came later. Really all of Peruvian prehistory is marked by ancient urban centers. These are a product of the environment where survival depended on the centralized control of water systems, similar to the control of the Nile in Egypt. These examples were the source of Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis that large civilizations develop around resources that are capable of being controlled. Nan Madol and Lelu serve as a contrast to that theory. In the Pacific food grows everywhere and water is abundant. There is no single resource to concentrate power around. Yet those who organized the construction of Nan Madol were still able to centralize their power system around a system of familial respect.

Ironically, though, the cultural site of greatest similarity to Nan Madol and Lelu is the Italian city of Venice. Both are composed of roughly one hundred artificial islets made of imported materials separated by small canals. Both are small urban-like centers for elite royalty created by divine vision. These similarities are ironic, however, because there is little possibility that these two cultures ever met. Their independent, autonomous creation marks a propensity in our human culture to create such places. They show a connection to the sea that is forgotten in the modern world. 

The terrestrial equivalents to these sites are numerous. There are several spiritual centers composed of megalithic structures on the World Heritage List. The most famous of these is Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. The megalithic temples of Malta are another example. These sites predate the pyramids of Egypt, which are also megalithic mortuary temples that are comparable to Nan Madol and Lelu.  However, while all of these sites exhibit the grand temples that have been constructed for religious leaders of ancient cultures within Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, no such sites are represented within the Pacific.

The conclusion to be drawn from all these comparisons is that there is an inherent propensity within the human species to build societies with large religious centers for an honored elite. However, this takes on different forms based on the environmental, technological, and cultural differences of people through time and across the world.  Only by looking at each of these sites in their own right can we fully understand and appreciate what each of those peoples of the past lived through and created. It is the uniqueness of each and every site that enthralls the archaeologist and the public alike.  

Like all the sites mentioned above the serial property of Nan Madol and Lelu adds to the human story in a unique way. For the Pacific region there is nothing else like it. And given the uniqueness of cultures in the Pacific Islands, composed of people living in the most remote parts of the world, then there is nothing else like it in the world.