A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
(Courtesy Rob Bollt)
Several years ago, I was working on the island of Rurutu excavating a marae--an East Polynesian ceremonial platform with stone and coral slabs thought to represent the backrests of seats for living and dead chiefs--when I found this tiki. A Polynesian tiki is a male figure that represents a deified ancestral chief or god, although female and sexless examples are also known. When I had completely cleaned the small pendant, I realized that this was the only excavated ornament of its kind from the Austral Islands in the South Pacific.
Although stylized, the tiki's form is recognizably human, with eyes notched in the head, a chiefly collar, folded arms and legs represented by chevrons, and fanning toes, all typical elements of Austral art. The tiki is drilled through the head and was probably used as a pendant on a necklace. Austral necklaces also had other carved images symbolic of a chief's wealth and virility--phallic-shaped pigs (pigs were an important sacred food); double sets of balls representing testicles; and small rectangles with concave sides that resemble the wooden seats made for the island's chiefs. The pendant's location in the marae reinforces the idea that it was a sacred place reserved for chiefly and priestly classes.
The Austral islanders are known for their intricate woodcarving on objects such as drums and ceremonial paddles, but few carved tikis still exist. When the inhabitants of the archipelago converted to Christianity in the early 1800s, they destroyed all "heathen" idols; only a handful of anthropomorphic pieces of Austral art were salvaged by European visitors. For me, uncovering this tiki was an incredible thrill. I like to think that somehow he guided me to the place where I found him.
Robert Bollt is Director of the Rurutu Excavation Project.