The Nowon and Votwos of Ureparapara
Vanuatu Cultural CentreAndrew Hoffmannvks@vanuatu.com.vu PO Box 184, Port Vila
Ureparapara Island, TORBA province, Vanuatu
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The Nowon and Votwos of Ureparapara are the central architectural elements of pre-European contact Ureparaparan culture, and are inextricable with the Sok graded-society (commonly referred to as the Sukwe in reference to other of the Banks Islands). Nowon and Votwos architectural forms were built adjacent each other and were the overt manifestation of social power, authority, leadership and peacemaking; functioning as meeting places and for ceremonial dancing, pig-killings of the Sok, reverence to ancestors and oratory addresses by community big-men. Typically located along the mid-slope plateau (100-150m above sea level) of Ureparapara’s steep outer volcanic flanks, each ceremonial-complex was associated with the hamlet or village settlements that existed across the island prior to sustained European settlement. The influence of some of these places was felt across the island.
Nowon are the ornate façades of the raised stone foundations to men’s-houses (gamal). Standing, on average, one-metre high, they are built of precisely interlocking-stone brickwork, and are comprised entirely of shaped basaltic slab stone. Prior to the abandonment of these places due to depopulation and Mission presence, the Nowon created striking entrances to the long (over 20m) and imposing men’s-houses built atop the raised foundations. Today the gamal architecture is all but a memory, nonetheless, regularly spaced divisions within the foundations, marked by vertical stone slabs, and tabu stone-lined fireplaces positioned in line along the length of the foundation, are all still visible today. It is within these divisions, that men of specific rank once sat, ate and planned together, under the arching roof of their respected house.
Votwos are spectacular earthen platforms, typically 2m high or more and lined on at least one-side by the same system of interlocking-stone brickwork as seen on the Nowon facades, although on a larger, grander scale. The Votwos are symbolic of being ‘high’ or having rank, they provide a vantage point from where a man-of-rank or influence would stand and address his community as their leader. Votwos can comprise a sole high platform, or can comprise several physically linked elements, including one or more stone-lined platforms connected to long linear stone-lined walls, which incorporate the area’s existing steep terrain for support. Votwos also incorporate several levels or standing platforms of varying heights, which accord with the rank of those permitted to stand, and a series of ascending step-stones regularly spaced throughout the brickwork to accommodate the ascent of influential men.
The proposed World Heritage Zone (fig.2.) incorporates the area from Lehali village east for roughly 7km, following Ureparapara’s dramatic and sheer northern volcanic coastline. The zone will extend inland from this coastal line up to the mid-slope plateau. Within this area several of the most impressive Nowon and Votwos structures occur. Importantly, this area will also incorporate two other significant components of Ureparaparan heritage: (1) Due to the steep volcanic flanks encountered on the island, traditional land-use practices included creating extensive areas of terraced land supported by massive boulder stone retaining walls. Other areas also reveal massive boulders organised together to form walking paths. (2) An area of rock-art engravings, which according to oral tradition acted as a storehouse of information for the transmission of important cultural symbols and designs associated with the secret society of the Tamate. These designs include various headdress patterns and at least one that possibly reveals the traditional garments of the highest men-of-rank.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The following statements support the authenticity of the Nowon and Votwos as ceremonial monuments of great significance to traditional society.
- 1) The presence of genealogical connections between these ceremonial grounds and individuals and communities living today;
- 2) The presence of oral traditions on Ureparapara that discuss aspects of the society involved in these sites construction;
- 3) The remembered associations of these properties with the Sukwe graded societies, combined with the presence of clear tangible evidence (gamal divisions and tabu fireplaces) at each site, recorded during survey, that this association is true and correct.
- 4) The use of closely related vernacular terms across the Banks Islands for these ceremonial sites (for example Nowon on Ureparapara, Nowonwon on Motalava and Wona on Mota Island);
- 5) The clear parallels in this site types' architectural form across the Banks islands and their memories of associations with the Sukwe graded societies.
- 6) Descriptions and photographs of this type of heritage property form and design, from Ureparapara and other Banks Islands, by ethnographers, missionaries and social researchers including Robert Codrington (1891), Felix Speiser (1996[for 1923]), and Greham Ward (1979). These academic works establish as true and credible the association of the properties on Ureparapara as associated with the people and their culture.
On the whole the heritage properties of Ureparapara remain in an exceptional state of preservation, wholeness and intactness. The primary impacts of deterioration come through the affects of tree root growth damaging the integrity of the structures. Some structures have suffered badly, however, those considered exceptional and within the World Heritage zone remain in great condition. Further effort will be made to address this issue.
Comparison with other similar properties
Megalithic structures associated with graded societies are present across northern Vanuatu, however, the Nowon and Votwos of Ureparapara are exceptional examples of the manifestation of power and authority associated with such societies, and of the economic and social communities responsible for their construction. The overall monumental size and aesthetic beauty, the extent of stone craftsmanship and attention to detail in construction, the complexity in design and linking of its elements, and the rich associated oral traditions make these properties unique.