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Preserving Micronesia's mysterious Nan Madol


Rufino Mauricio (Photo: Courtesy Justin Nobel)

The stone city of Nan Madol, in Pohnpei, one of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), consists of 92 man-made islands built on a coral reef at the edge of a mangrove swamp. The buildings of this mysterious 1,000-year-old site, which was the ceremonial and political seat of an ancient dynasty, are made of stacks of cut stone "logs," each weighing up to 50 tons. Today, issues of ownership and sovereignty hold up plans to rehabilitate Nan Madol and make it eligible for a UNESCO World Heritage designation. Writer Justin Nobel spoke with Rufino Mauricio, an archaeologist with the FSM Office of the National Archives, Culture, and Historic Preservation, about how the city's colorful oral history stacks up with archaeology and why, if you visit, you may have the entire place to yourself.

You are the only person in your state, Pohnpei, with an archaeology PhD. How did that happen?

I studied anthropology at Brooklyn College. Back home, my culture was changing and no one was documenting what was being lost. William Ayres, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, invited me to join an investigation of several remote sites in Pohnpei. Family members and friends didn't know what our work involved. One aunt actually cornered me in the field and said, "Why did you have to go to New York City to study about your own place?" I didn't have an answer for her. She was right.

Nan Madol Photo Gallery

Who built Nan Madol?

It was constructed by a line of kings known as the Saudeleurs who ruled Pohnpei for at least 500 years, and perhaps much longer. They united the state under one lineage—some rulers were good, others were tyrants.

Who "rules" the site these days?

The law clearly states that Nan Madol belongs to the state of Pohnpei, but the Nahnmwarki—the traditional leader of Madolenihmw, the municipality in which the site is located—doesn't want to relinquish control to the state or any other organization. You must listen to the Nahnmwarki, he is part of a clan that has ruled Nan Madol since the fall of the Saudeleurs 500 years ago. My office is trying to put Nan Madol on the World Heritage list so it can become eligible for funding for rehabilitation, but first we must settle the ownership question.

How do Pohnpeians view the site?

Locals know about Nan Madol but are afraid of it. Many Pohnpeians continue to believe that if you disturb the site you will bring bad luck upon yourself or maybe even cause the whole society to be cursed. The people believe the oral history version of its origin: two brothers, Olosohpa and Olosihpa, came from either the south or the west, looking to promote their ritual practice, and constructed Nan Madol in their lifetime, using magical powers to fly in the basalt logs.

Magical powers?

The flying stones are a myth, but the story indicates that the "logs" probably came from far away. We have located several possible quarry sites on Pohnpei, but sourcing the stones, which involves chemical fingerprinting, is very expensive. Once we have a location down, then we can start thinking about methods of transport like, say, rafts. We did try to put a basalt log on a bamboo raft once. It sank straight to the bottom.

How do archaeologists interpret the site's chronology?

The sequence of the oral history makes sense, but when it comes to the two brothers constructing it in their lifetime...that is something an archaeologist would dispute. We believe building began around 1,500 years ago, but I think intensive work began 500 years later, with abandonment about 500 years after that. The islands closer to the mainland are older than those on the outskirts of the site, facing the sea, which is where the most elaborate structures are. The oral history says that a man from the east named Isohkelekel arrived with a group of warriors and overthrew the Saudeleurs, but we don't know whether it was a series of quick battles or a long conflict.

How would a visitor today find Nan Madol?

For locals the place is taboo and for tourists it is a bit overgrown. The site is not a good picnicking area and you don't have a sandy beach or any amenities. It is more like a secluded sanctuary. For me, it is conducive to thinking and wonder.