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The Ancient Capitals of the Kingdom of Tonga

Date de soumission : 09/08/2007
Critères: (iii)(iv)
Catégorie : Culturel
Soumis par :
Tonga National Commission for UNESCO
État, province ou région :

Heketā near Niutoua & Afa, and Lapaha in Mu'a on the island of Tongatapu

Coordonnées S20 00 W175 00
Ref.: 5167

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The property consists of two archaeological sites:-

  1. Ha'amonga ‘a Mau'i Historic Park at Heketā near Niutoua;
  2. Ancient Royal Tombs at Lapaha in the village of Mu'a

Ha'amonga ‘a Mau'i Historic Park

According to oral traditions which have subsequently been recorded, the Tu'i Tonga Empire is said to have been formed around the year 950AD. The first Tu'i Tonga (‘Aho'eitu) located his capital (first capital) at the village of Toloa on the island of Tongatapu.

The Ha'amonga ‘a Mau'i Historic Park is the site of the second capital of Ancient Tonga known as Heketā (Royal Compound), having been relocated from Toloa by the 10th Tui Tonga (Momo) in the 10th Century. It is located at the eastern tip of Tongatapu near the villages of Niutoua and Afa, and looks towards the northeast of the celestial plain.  The name of the site is derived from the famous Polynesian God, Maui.   

The prominent feature of this park is the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui (Trilithon) - a monumental stone architecture comprising of three coral limestone slabs. It is estimated that each slab weighs more than 20 tonnes and stands at 6 metres in height.  

It is said that the 11th Tu'i Tonga, Tu'itatui, built the trilithon about 1200AD whilst in power. There are many theories about this construction. It is believed that it was used as a gateway to his Royal Compound, Heketā. The two upright stones are said to have represented his two sons, Lafa and Talaiha'apepe, with the lintel uniting the columns symbolizing the bonds of brotherhood. The Tu'i Tonga was concerned his two sons might quarrel after his death and erected the monument as a reminder to stay united. It was they who decided to move the centre of government to Lapaha in Mu'a (third capital). It is also said that they preferred a more calm anchorage site for their great double hulled canoes which were the most common means of transportation for long distance voyages in those days, and Lapaha offered the ideal site.

There is also a large stone slab known as "Maka Fa'akinanga" about 100 metres from the  trilithon, which served as the King's throne. It is said that the King sat here alertly to ward off assassination attempts on his life. The stone has evident indentation of a large head, shoulders and back.

Of recent, after research of the Ha'amonga a' Maui initiated by the late King, His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, in 1967, the Palace Office in Tonga reports that the creation and importance of the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui is based on its relation to the sun, which is extremely significant in Tongan Culture for every day activities. Notches are found carved on the top lintel that indicate (1) the longest day, (2) the shortest day and (3) when the sun is directly above the equinox. The sun rises and sets at exactly the same spot and the Ha'amonga Archway pin points those points on the horizon. The sun equinoxes are the half way points in which the sun rises in accordance with the earth moving north and south. This archway is an entry and departure to the heavens that is observed by navigators, sea going farers, farmers, harvesters, and even the planters are some of the people that utilized the sun clock to assist their existence on earth. Three cleared walk-ways, as slightly seen in Picture 1, are meant to illustrate this theory.

Considering the historical significance of the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui and potential for further research, the late King, His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou 1V, declared and named the site "Ha'amonga ‘a Maui Historical Park" - a site that shall remain protected, researched and interpreted for future generations.

The community surrounding the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui Historical Park is in full support of having the site submitted for World Heritage Tentative Listing.

Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha in the village of Mu'a

The village of Mu'a, about 12 kilometres from the current capital, Nuku'alofa, is the site of the third capital of Ancient Tonga, having been relocated from the Heketa-Ha'amonga area around the 13th Century until the 19th Century. It is located in the eastern district of Tongatapu.

Lapaha, which is situated at the north-eastern part of Mu'a, is said to have been the permanent home and centre of chiefly power of the Tu'i Tonga. It is also famous for being the geographic centre of the Tongan maritime chiefdom during the reign of Tu'i Tongas from the 13th to the 19th Centuries. Of relevance for this submission, however, is the 22 (estimated) ancient royal tombs (or langis) that can be found in this area (sketch map attached of positioning of tombs), spread over an estimated 400 x 500 square metres of land where Tu'i Tongas were buried.

The langis are platforms of earth with a stepped pyramid effect supported by stone slabs as surrounding walls. It is said that the construction of these massive tombs was a way to demonstrate the spiritual and political power of the Tu'i Tonga. These tombs and the rituals that surround the burial of the descendents of the Tu'i Tongas in the same tombs are still a living part of the Tongan culture to this present day. It is believed also that Tu'i Tongas constructed these tombs as a symbol of their respect for the Heavenly Fathers that became Kings of Tonga.

The vaults and the construction were enormous and highly engineering feat that the people of Tonga achieved at a time the Tongan empire was at its peak. The corners of the slabs used to construct the tombs were very well and neatly joined as if the hard coral slabs of rocks were like pieces of timber and there was little evidence of mechanical tools available. Village elders passing on traditional knowledge mention that the division of labour for the construction and placement of a langi is quite distinct, and only certain individuals are permitted to carry out certain tasks.

There are many generations buried at Lapaha starting in the south inside the ring ditch then northeast then two langi towards the harbour near the Princesses land and the old harbour.

The Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha have been heavily researched since 1827, and there are still conflicting findings (numbers, name and size) to this present day. However, it is hoped that as research continues with modern technology, there will be elements of commonality with past findings that could present a truer picture of the ancient tombs. A copy of a Preliminary Report describing initial results of archaeological field work, largely on the Ancient Tombs at Lapaha in February-March 2006, led by Dr. Geoffrey Clark of the Australian National University is attached. The report is self-explanatory and depicts the magnitude of work involved to identify, map, name, measure, date and find out the construction method of tombs involved - work which would have been beyond the scope of the financial contribution provided in the contract to the Tonga National Commission for UNESCO.

The Lapaha community is in full support of having the site submitted for World Heritage Tentative Listing.

Déclarations d’authenticité et/ou d’intégrité

Both sites are an authentic expression of the traditional system of political power that existed in Tonga from the tenth century to the eighteenth century, and continues to exist through the lineage of the present King of Tonga, one of the world's oldest continuing systems of chiefly or kingly authority. Tonga is still a constitutional monarch. There is a direct historical link between the sites and the present era, and this link can be traced back to 950AD through oral traditions, genealogies and recorded history.

The authenticity of claims that the Ancient Royal Tombs at Lapaha are burial places for the Tu'i Tonga is evidenced by the genealogical history preserved at the Tonga Traditions Committee housed at the Palace Office, and the writing of the King in early contact period and by the continuing tradition also of caring for the tombs (bush clearing) and holding the knowledge of who is buried in them that is vested in local families at Lapaha. Not only are the tombs of unique landscaping and architecture, but they are still a living part of the Tongan culture through associated burial rituals. The fact that the tombs are still researched is a tangible evidence that they still hold historical value of great significance. It is the desire also of researchers to record all findings for transmission to future generations. An exemplary example is the Preliminary Report by Dr. Geoffrey Clark and his team where they record that a few of the tombs date back to 1250 - 1380 AD (the report mentions that more samples needed to be collected to confirm those older than expected).

With regard to claims for the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui having an astronomical or sundial function, marking the point on the horizon where the sun rises at mid-year - these claims are generally held to be true although the source of this belief is unclear and may have been an idea introduced in the early 20th century. Despite this, genealogies and histories of the Tu'i Tonga recorded by missionaries in the late 19th Century identify the Ha'amonga and associated langi and other archaeological features as the seat of the Tu'i Tonga prior to Lapaha.

The massive structures of these sites reflect also the power and authority of the Tongan Maritime Empire in their scale and materials, and in the organized labour commanded to construct them and in their demonstrable links with other Pacific archipelagoes.

Through the presence of these sites, their communities are proud to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next because of the evidence available.

Comparaison avec d’autres biens similaires

The properties could be compared to properties in the region or globally that reflect ancient but continuing traditional authority systems (chiefly or kingly power) from the pre-contact to the present.

In Tonga:

These two sites are the pre-eminent sites in the Kingdom of Tonga. The other cultural sites in Tonga that are associated with individuals and events from the period in which the sites were in use, but which are not strikingly outstanding as the Ha'amonga ‘a Maui and the Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha, include the ‘Esi ‘o ‘Ulukalala in Feletoa, Vava'u (langis), Pouono in Vava'u (langis), Uhia in Ha'apai, (langis), Veleta Ancient Fortress in Ha'apai and the Shirley Baker Bronze Statue in Ha'apai. These sites, however, could be registered as part of the National Heritage List. The Ancient Capitals are the outstanding examples in terms of the story they tell of being the seats of power in the Tongan Maritime Empire and they are the largest, most intact examples and, in the case of Lapaha there is continued use, and still form a living part of Tongan Culture.

In the region:

There are many stone and/or earth monuments in the Pacific Islands that reflect past authority systems including burial sites, ceremonial and meeting sites. These include the Ahu of Rapanui, Marae of Eastern Polynesia (Marquesas, Society Islands) and Nan Madol in Ponape, Micronesia. None of these are World Heritage Properties and their ancient history is not well documented (back to the 10th Century) as in the case of Ha'amonga ‘a Maui and the Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha.


There are also many stone and/or earth monuments elsewhere in the world that reflect past authority systems including burial sites, ceremonial and meeting sites. The Ha'amonga ‘a Maui is often compared to the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites in Wiltshire. However, each has its own unique historical story, and cannot rule out the other.

The Ancient Royal Tombs have also been compared to other similar sites such as the Pyramids in Egypt. Again, each has its own unique historical story, and cannot rule out the other. Most of the tombs at Lapaha are poorly preserved, and it is believed that once they are accepted for Tentative Listing and have a management plan in place, they will look as magnificent and outstanding as the pyramids and tombs in Egypt.