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For back of statue see fig. 106.


Form of the Easter Island Image — Position and Number of the Ahu — Design and Construction of the Image Ahu — Reconstruction and Transformation — The Semi-pyramid Ahu — The Overthrow of the Images and Destruction of the Ahu.

In many places it is possible in the light of great monuments to reconstruct the past. In Easter Island the past is the present, it is impossible to escape from it; the inhabitants of to-day are less real than the men who have gone; the shadows of the departed builders still possess the land. Voluntarily or involuntarily the sojourner must hold commune with those old workers; for the whole air vibrates with a vast purpose and energy which has been and is no more. What was it? Why was it? The great works are now in ruins, of many comparatively little remains; but the impression infinitely exceeded anything which had been anticipated, and every day, as the power to see increased, brought with it a greater sense of wonder and marvel. “If we were to tell people at home these things," said our Sailing-master, after being shown the prostrate images on the great burial place of Tongariki, “they would not believe us."

The present natives take little interest in the remains. The statues are to them facts of every-day life in much the same way as stones or banana-trees. “Have you no moai" (as they are termed) "in England?” was asked by one boy, in a tone in which surprise was slightly mingled with contempt; to ask for the history of the great works is as successful as to try to get from an old woman selling bootlaces at Westminster the story of Cromwell or of the frock-coated worthies in Parliament Square. The information given in reply to questions is generally wildly mythical, and any real knowledge crops up only indirectly.

Anyone who is able to go to the British Museum can see a typical specimen of an Easter Island statue, in the large image which greets the approaching visitor from under the portico (fig. 31). The general form is unvarying, and with one exception, which will be alluded to hereafter, all appear to be the work of skilled hands, which suggests that the design was well known and evolved under other conditions. It represents a half-length figure, at the bottom of which the hands nearly meet in front of the body. The most remarkable features are the ears, of which the lobe is depicted to represent a fleshy rope (fig. 58), while in a few cases the disc which was worn in it is also indicated (fig. 59). The fashion of piercing and distending the lobe of the ear is found among various primitive races.1 The tallest statues are over 30 feet, a few are only 6 feet, and even smaller specimens exist. Those which stood on the burial-places, now to be described, are usually from 12 to 20 feet in height, and were surmounted with a form of hat.2

Position and Number of Ahu. — In Easter Island the problem of the disposal of the dead was solved by neither earth-burial nor cremation, but by means of the omnipresent stones which were built up to make a last resting-place for the departed. Such burial-places are known as "ahu," and the name will henceforth be used, for it signifies a definite thing, or rather type of thing, for which we have no equivalent. They number in all some two hundred and sixty, and are principally found near the coast, but some thirty exist inland, sufficient to show that their erection on the sea-board was a matter of convenience, not of principle. With the exception of the great eastern and western headlands, where they are scarce, it is probably safe to say that, in riding round the island, it is impossible to go anywhere for more than a few hundred yards without coming across one of these abodes of the dead. They cluster most thickly on the little coves and their enclosing promontories, which were the principal centres of population. Some are two or three hundred yards away from the edge of the cliff, others stand on the verge; in the lower land they are but little above the sea-level, while on the precipitous part of the coast the ocean breaks hundreds of feet below.

It was these burial-places, on which the images were then standing, which so strongly impressed the early voyagers and whose age and origin have remained an unsolved problem.

During the whole of our time on the island we worked on the ahu as way opened. Those which happened to lie near to either of our camps were naturally easy of access, but to reach the more distant ones, notably those on the north shore, involved a long expedition. Such a day began with perhaps an hour's ride; at noon there was an interval for luncheon, when, in hot weather, the neighbourhood was scoured for miles to find the smallest atom of shade; and the day ended with a journey home of not less than two hours, during which an anxious eye was kept on the sinking sun. The usual method, as each ahu was reached, was for S. to dismount, measure it and describe it, while I sat on my pony and scribbled down notes; but in some manner or other every part of the coast was by one or both of us ridden over several times, and a written statement made of the size, kind, condition, and name of each monument.

Unfortunately there is in existence no large-scale plan of the coast, a need we had to supply as best we could; map of Easter Island there is none, only the crude chart; the efforts of our own surveyor were limited, by the time at his disposal, to making detailed plans of a few of the principal spots. The want is to be regretted geographically, but it does not materially affect the archaeological result. We were always accompanied by native guides in order to learn local names and traditions, and it was soon found necessary to make a point of these being old men; owing to the concentration of the remains of the population in one district, all names elsewhere, except those of the most important places, are speedily being forgotten. The memories of even the older men were sometimes shaky, and to get reasonably complete and accurate information the whole of a district had, in more than one case, to be gone over again with a second ancient who turned out to have lived in the neighbourhood in his youth and hence to be a better authority.

Original Design and Construction of Image Ahu. — The burial-places are not all of one type, nor all constructed to carry statues; some also are known to have been built comparatively recently, and will therefore be described under a later section. The image ahu are, however, all prehistoric. They number just under a hundred, or over one-third of the whole.3  The figures connected with them, of which traces still remain, were counted as 231, but as many are in fragments, this number is uncertain.

A typical image ahu (fig. 36) is composed of a long wall running parallel with the sea, which, in a large specimen, is as much as 15 feet in height and 300 feet in length; it is buttressed on the land side with a great slope of masonry. The wall is in three divisions. The main or central portion projects in the form of a terrace on which the images stood, with their backs to the sea; it is therefore broad enough to carry their oval bed-plates; these measure up to about 10 feet in length by 8 feet or 9 feet in width, and are flush with the top of the wall. On the great ahu of Tongariki there have been fifteen statues, but sometimes an ahu has carried one figure only.

The wall which forms the landward side of the terrace is continued on either hand in a straight line, thus adding a wing at each end of the central portion which stands somewhat farther back from the sea (fig. 41). Images were sometimes placed on the wings, but it was not usual. From this continuous wall the masonry slopes steeply till it reaches a containing wall, some 3 feet high, formed of finely wrought slabs of great size and of peculiar shape; the workmanship put into this wall is usually the most highly finished of any part of the ahu. Extending inland from the foot of this low wall is a large, raised, and smoothly paved expanse. The upper surface of this, too, has an appreciable fall, or slope, inland, though it is almost horizontal, when compared with the glacis.

By the method of construction of this area, vault accommodation is obtained between its surface pavement and the sheet of volcanic rock below, on which the whole rests. In the largest specimen the whole slope of masonry, measured that is from either the sea-wall of the wing or from the landward wall of the terrace to its farthest extent, is about 250 feet. Beyond this the ground is sometimes levelled for another 50 or 60 yards, forming a smooth sward which much enhanced the appearance of the ahu. In two cases the ahu is approached by a strip of narrow pavement formed of water-worn boulders laid flat, and bordered with the same kind of stone set on end; one of these pavements is 220 feet in length by 12 feet in width, the other is somewhat smaller (fig, 93).



The general principle on which the sea or main walls are constructed is usually the same, though the various ahu differ greatly in appearance: first comes a row of foundation blocks on which have been set upright the largest stones that could be found; the upper part of the wall is composed of smaller stones, and it is finished with a coping. The variety in effect is due to the difference in material used. In some cases, as at Tonga riki (fig. 33), the most convenient stone available has consisted of basalt which has cooled in fairly regular cubes, and the rows are there comparatively uniform in size; in other instances, as at Ahu Tepeu on the west coast (fig. 37), the handiest material has been sheets of lava, which have hardened as strata, and when these have been used the first tier of the wall is composed of huge slabs up to 9 feet in height. Irregularities in the shape and size of the big stones are rectified by fitting in small pieces and surmounting the shorter slabs with additional stones until the whole is brought to a uniform level; on the top of this now even tier horizontal blocks are laid, till the whole is the desired height (fig. 42). The amount of finish put into the work varies greatly: in many ahu the walls are all constructed of rough material; in others, while the slabs are untouched, the stones which bring them to the level and the cubes on the top are well wrought; in a very few instances, of which Vinapu (fig. 35) is the best example, the whole is composed of beautifully finished work. Occasionally, as at Oroi, natural outcrops of rock have been adapted to carry statues (fig. 122).


Part of seaward wall showing large slabs — some of the stones forming upper courses are wrought foundation-stones of canoe-shaped houses.  

The study of the ahu is simplified by the fact that they were being used in living memory for the purpose for which they were doubtless originally built. They have been termed "burial-places," but burial in its usual sense was not the only, nor in most cases their principal, object. On death the corpse was wrapped in a tapa blanket and enclosed in its mattress of reeds; fish-hooks, chisels, and other objects were sometimes included. It was then bound into a bundle and carried on staves to the ahu, where it was exposed on an oblong framework. This consisted of four corner uprights set up in the ground, the upper extremities of which were Y-shaped, two transverse bars rested in the bifurcated ends, one at the head, the other at the foot, and on these transverse bars were placed the extremities of the bundle which wrapped the corpse. The description and sketch are based on a model framework, and a wrapped-up figure, one of the wooden images of the island, prepared by the natives to amplify their verbal description.4 At times, instead of the four supports, two stones were used with a hole in each, into which a Y-shaped stick was placed (fig. 38). While the corpse remained on the ahu the district was marked off by the pera, or taboo, for the dead; no fishing was allowed near, and fires and cooking were forbidden within certain marks — the smoke, at any rate, must be hidden or smothered with grass. Watch was kept by four relatives, and anyone breaking the regulations was liable to be brained. The mourning might last one, two, or even three years, by which time the whole thing had, of course, fallen to pieces. The bones were either left on the ahu, or collected and put into vaults of oblong shape, which were kept for the family, or they might be buried elsewhere. The end of the mourning was celebrated by a great feast, after which ceremony, as one recorder cheerfully concluded, “Pappa was finished."



Looked at from the landward side, we may, therefore, conceive an ahu as a vast theatre stage, of which the floor runs gradually upwards from the footlights. The back of the stage, which is thus the highest part, is occupied by a great terrace, on which are set up in line the giant images, each one well separated from his neighbour, and all facing the spectator. Irrespective of where he stands he will ever see them towering above him, clear cut out against a turquoise sky. In front of them are the remains of the departed. Unseen, on the farther side of the terrace, is the sea. The stone giants, and the faithful dead over whom they watch, are never without music, as countless waves launch their strength against the pebbled shore, showering on the figures a cloud of mist and spray.

Reconstruction and Transformation. — Those which have been described are ideal image ahu, but not one now remains in its original condition. It is by no means unusual to find, even in the oldest parts now existing, that is in walls erected to carry statues, pieces of still older images built into the stonework; in one case a whole statue has been used as a slab for the sea-wall, showing that alteration has taken place even when the cult was alive (fig. 42). Again, a considerable number of ahu, some thirteen in all, after being destroyed and terminating their career as image-terraces, have been rebuilt after the fashion of others constructed originally on a different plan (fig. 39). This is a type for which no name was found: it is in form that of a semi-pyramid, and there are between fifty and sixty on the island, in addition to those which have been in the first place image-ahu (fig. 42). A few are comparatively well made, but most are very rough. They resemble a pyramid cut in two, so that the section forms a triangle; this triangle is the sea-wall; the flanking buttress on the land side is made of stones, and is widest at che apex or highest point, gradually diminishing to the angles or extremities. The greatest height, in the centre, varies from about 5 feet to 12 feet, and a large specimen may extend in length from 100 feet to 160 feet. They contain vaults. In a few instances they are ornamented by broken pieces of image-stone, and occasionally by a row of small cairns along the top, which recall the position of the statues on the image-platform; for these no very certain reason was forthcoming, they were varyingly reported to be signs of “pera" or as marking the respective right of families on the ahu. As image-terraces may be found reconstructed as pyramid ahu, the latter form of building must have been carried on longer than the former, and probably till recent times, but there is nothing to show whether or not the earliest specimens of pyramid ahu are contemporary with the great works, or even earlier.

Overthrow of the Images and Destruction of the Ahu. — The only piece of a statue which still remains on its bed-plate is the fragment already alluded to at Tongariki (fig. 34). In the best-preserved specimens the figures lie on their faces like a row of huge nine-pins; some are intact, but many are broken, the cleavage having generally occurred when the falling image has come in contact with the containing wall at the lower level. The curious way in which the heads have not infrequently turned a somersault while falling and now lie face uppermost is shown in the eighth figure from the western end on Tongariki ahu (fig. 34).




No one now living remembers a statue standing on an ahu; and legend, though not of a very impressive character, has already arisen to account for the fall of some of them. An old man arrived, it is said, in the neighbourhood of Tongariki, and as he was unable to speak, he made known by means of signs that he wished for chicken-heads to eat; these were not forthcoming. He slept, however, in one of the houses there, and during the night his hosts were aroused by a great noise, which he gave it to be understood was made by his feet tapping against the stone foundations of the house. In the morning it was found that the statues on the great ahu had all fallen: it was the revenge of the old man. Such lore is, however, mixed up with more tangible statements to the effect that the figures were overthrown in tribal warfare by means of a rope, or by taking away the small stones from underneath the bed-plates, and thus causing them to fall forward. That the latter method had been used had been concluded independently by studying the remains themselves. It will be seen later, that other statues which have been set up in earth were deliberately dug out, and it seems unnecessary to look, as some have done, to an earthquake to account for their collapse.

Moreover, the conclusion that the images owed their fall to deliberate vandalism during internecine warfare is confirmed by knowledge, which still survives, connected with the destruction of the last one. This image stood alone on an ahu on the north coast, called Paro, and is the tallest known to have been put up on a terrace, being 32 feet in height. The events occurred just before living memory, and, like most stories in Easter Island, it is connected with cannibalism. A woman of the western clans was eaten by men of the eastern; her son managed to trap thirty of the enemy in a cave and consumed them in revenge; and during the ensuing struggle this image was thrown down (fig. 78). The oldest man living when we were on the island said that he was an infant at the time; and another, a few years younger, stated that his father as a boy helped his grandfather in the fight. It is not, after all, only in Easter Island that pleasure has been taken during war-time in destroying the architectural treasures of the enemy.

While, therefore, the date of the erection of the earliest image ahu is lost in the mists of antiquity, nor are we yet in a position to say when the building stopped, we can give approximately the time of the overthrow of the images. We know, from the accounts of the early voyagers, that the statues, or the greater number of them, were still in place in the eighteenth century; by the early part of the middle of the nineteenth century not one was standing.

Image ahu, with east wing clearly defined. Landward side and centre converted to semi-pyramid form.  

The destruction of the ahu has continued in more modern days. A manager, whose sheep had found the fresh-water springs below high water, thinking they were injuring themselves by drinking from the sea, erected a wall round a large part of the coast to keep them from it. For this wall the ahu came in of course most conveniently; it was run through a great number and their material used for its construction. One wing of Tongariki has been pulled down to form an enclosure for the livestock. In addition to the damage wrought by man, the ocean is ever encroaching: in some cases part of an ahu has already fallen into the sea, and more is preparing to follow; statues may be found lying on their backs in process of descending into the waves (fig. 43). One row of images, on the extreme western edge of the crater of Rano Kao, which were visible, although inaccessible, at the time of the visit of the U.S.A. ship Mohican in 1886, are now lying on the shore a thousand feet below. As the result of these various causes the burial-places of Easter Island are, as has been seen, all in ruins, and many are scarcely recognisable; only their huge stones and prostrate figures show what they must once have been.


An Image ahu partially destroyed and changed to semi-pyramid type. A statue from Raraku lies in foreground; another statue of different stone forms part of the main wall.

Statue has fallen backwards

1 For an illustrated description of the method of expanding the ear, see With a Prehistoric People, the Akikuyu of British East Africa, p. 32.

2 A full description of the statues is given in chap. xiv.

3 This excludes some fifteen which may have carried statues, but about which doubt exists.

4 The body was no doubt supported by staves, though they were dispensed with in the model, being unnecessary for the wooden figure.

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