A ceremonial axe and a road made of red cement helped a pair of British researchers to solve one of the biggest riddles still surrounding the famous monumental statues on Easter Island: the origin of the hats made of pink-red stone that adorn the heads of some of the statues. The researchers, Dr. Sue Hamilton from University College in London and Dr. Colin Richards from the University of Manchester are the first archaeologists to excavate the quarry where the huge hats were produced.
After being quarried from the volcano, the hats were transported along the road paved with cement produced from the dust of congealed red lava; the road had a kind of elevated sidewalk on one side. According to Dr. Richards, the island's residents apparently rolled the stone hats by hand - each of the hats weighs several tons, has a diameter of about two and a half meters and is about two meters high. That is how they brought them to the platforms along the shores of the island on which the huge stone statues - the moai - are mounted. However, added Richards, it is possible that the inhabitants used wooden planks to transport the hats. There is no clear evidence for either theory.
The hats were created from the same red volcanic material that was used to pave the road, in the quarry located in the mouth of the Puna Pao volcano. From the time the volcanic rock began to be used to create the hats, about 800 years ago, about one third of the mouth of the volcano was removed. All along the road, and on stone surfaces inside the quarry, the researchers found over 70 such hats. They believe that the inhabitants of the island quarried many additional hats, but some broke on the way to the coast. The surfaces along the road were constructed from the fragments.
The hats line one side of the road. They were placed there deliberately and their density increases as one approaches the quarry. From this the researchers concluded that in addition to the practical function they filled, the red road and the quarry also had ritual functions. "It's clear that the quarry was not only an industrial site, but also operated in a ritual context," said Richards. "The inhabitants of the island, who were originally from Polynesia, regarded the landscape as a living creature. They believed that after they quarried the stone, spirits entered the statues."
This theory was reinforced by an axe made of obsidian - shiny black volcanic rock that is similar to glass, which is formed from lava that hardened quickly - found near the hats along the road. In answer to a question from Haaretz, Richards said that the shovel was clearly not a work tool. The shovels usually served for the manufacture of wooden planks, which were used for building canoes, among other things. This shovel had no scratches or signs of damage and was preserved in clean and pristine condition. The researchers assume that one of the workers in the quarry left it as an offering for the gods.
The stone statues on Easter Island, which have been arousing wonder and amazement since 1722, the year that white men first stepped foot on the island, were originally constructed of various types of rock. Some were created from the red volcanic material that was used to create the hats. Between 1200 and 1300 the moai quarry changed its designation and its stone became an exclusive source for producing the giant hats. The change in the quarry's function took place at the same time as the increase in the statues' dimensions all over the island.
The quarry, say Hamilton and Richards, was a secret place. It's impossible to see it from other places on the island, and the noise created by the quarries was swallowed in the mouth of the mountain. The road along which the hats were transported came into use about 750 years ago and stopped operating about 500 years ago. During that period, says Hamilton, the inhabitants of Easter Island lived in a flourishing society. About 70 percent of the island was used for agricultural fields and gardening.
Hamilton and Richards also found evidence of the processes that eventually led to the destruction of the civilization on Eastern Island: In the quarry on the Rano Raraku volcano, where the statues were made, there were separate areas for various groups, who competed among themselves. There was probably a similar division in the hat quarry at Puna Pao.
The island, covering some 164 square kilometers, is located in the Pacific Ocean, far from any other land mass. It is about 3,800 kilometers from Chile, the country that has controlled it since the late 19th century. Today most of the island is uninhabited, and covered with bushes and rocks. Most of its 4,000 inhabitants live in the only town, Hanga Roa. When the island was revealed to the Western world on the eve of Easter 1722, when Dutch sailors anchored there, the civilization that had built the moai and placed hats on their heads was already dying out. The inhabitants began to build the giant statues, for an unknown reason, about 1,000 years ago.
The moai became a status symbol for the various groups on the island, who competed among themselves in the construction of increasingly large statues. More and more farmers, fishermen and artisans were recruited to help with the quarrying and with transporting the statues to their sites. The forests that covered the island were cut down to provide wooden planks to transport the statues and build houses for the fast-growing population. In the wake of the massive deforestation, the layer of fertile land was eroded and the sources of food dwindled. Despite these bitter developments, the moai industry did not cease. In the end over 1,000 huge statues were built, mute evidence of a civilization that died out.
The dwindling of the sources of livelihood led to wars among the various groups, and many of the inhabitants became refugees after abandoning their homes, living in caves on the island where they found a hiding place from the warriors. The builders, who realized that they would not be saved by the statues, began to vent their rage at them. Many of the statues were shattered.
After the wars died down the survivors tried to revive their civilization. But the encounter with the Europeans and with the wars they brought with them, as well as with pirates from Peru who raided the island and took many of the inhabitants into slavery, left them with no chance. Among the slaves were the ruler, who was thought to have magical powers, and members of the educated class that were familiar the unique hieroglyphic writing that was developed on the island, Rongorongo, which has yet to be deciphered.
Hamilton and Richards know where the hats on the statues' heads came from, but they have no explanation for how the inhabitants lifted the huge chunks of rock when they had only stone tools at their disposal. The question of why they began to adorn the statues with hats is also awaiting an answer.