In the wake of the evangelization of Polynesia and the subsequent massive destruction of the sacred sites ordered by King Pomare II after he won the Fei Pi battle in 1815, the pagan religion and the pagan worshipping places sank into complete oblivion.
A number of recent archaeological excavations made it possible to discover and revive sacred sites such as marae, petroglyphs as well as statues featuring deified ancestors called tiki. Unfortunately, very few objects of those times were retrieved.
The state of preservation of these sites may vary from one site to another. Indeed, in some cases, these sacred places are but heaps of stone covered in lush vegetation. The Territorial Government and the town council authorities are increasingly involved in the preservation of the Polynesian cultural heritage ant try to restore all these structures. To visit these places in the best conditions, a local guide proves extremely useful by providing historical background comments which very seldom can be found on the spots even after restoration.
These types of archaeological sites may be found in all the archipelagoes with however some noticeable differences regarding the way they were built and their number. The archipelago of Marquesas conceals lots of these treasures, each island being an outdoor museum. The archaeological sites in the Tuamotu and Leeward islands are of easier access as they were often built on the lagoon side like on Maupiti island.
The Marae (or Meae in the Marquesan language).
The marae used to be sacred buildings, or funerary sites, of a rectangular shape, built in the open air, away from busy places, on which religious and social ceremonies would be performed. The Polynesian civilization being of oral tradition, it is difficult to know with accuracy about the course of the ceremonies and rites such as the worshipping of gods, the enthronement of a king, the preparations for warfare, the sacrifices or funeral ceremonies or else any other major national or royal event… implemented on these sacred places and which were prohibited (tabu) to any lay person.
We may nevertheless catch a glimpse of some of them through the reports of explorers such as Cook, Wallis or Bougainville. Reconstructions of these ceremonies are staged during the Heiva (July festival), especially on theArahurahu Marae in Paea.
The structure of the marae varies depending upon the archipelagoes or islands where they were built, with the exception of two elements which are present on each site : a rectangular area, with a length that may reach up to about fifty metres, 20 metres across, generally paved with lava or coral stones, surrounded by a wall and with an altar or ahu, the most sacred part reserved to the gods and ancestors, located at one end. The ahu could be built over several levels like pyramids or in the shape of a low and single level square monument.
Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout, a 19th century ethnologist, gave the following description of the marae in “Voyage to the Islands of the Vast Ocean”: “The building itself was a sort of parallelogram narrowing from the base to the top; if formed a kind of pyramid. It was made of large coral slabs taken from the sea and cut, of mountain lava stones difficult to shape, and of big river pebbles laid down so that their rounded part were upward; all the stones fitting and overlapping each other perfectly, without any cement had to be used. Three or four terracing steps were built around it. These buildings were meant to last for centuries.“
After he had accurately described the pyramidal shape of the Mahaiatea marae, now disappeared, the stones of which were used in the construction of a bridge late in the 19th century, Cook wrote: “it is a stone building raised as a pyramid on a square base 267 feet long and 87 ft wide (…). In the middle of the top of this mass was a bird figure carved out of wood, and beside it there was another broken figure of a fish sculpted in stone. The whole pyramid was part of an almost square wide expanse the longest sides of which were 360 ft and the other two 354 ft; the square was surrounded by walls and paved with flat stones all- over. (…) At about a hundred yards west of this building, there was a kind of paved yard with several little platforms erected on top of 7ft-high wooden columns. (…) They seemed to be some kinds of altars because the attendants put all sorts of food on top as offerings to their gods.“
Stones were erected in front of the ahu as resting seats for the gods or the masters of ceremonies. In the middle of the platform there were tables on which the offerings to the gods (fruit and dead animals) were displayed, as well as stones used as seats and with carved motifs showing the social rank of the attendants.
Stelae or totem called unu in wood carved out with animal or anthropomorphic figures featured the genealogies affiliated to the gods of the marae. The objects, religious symbols, or human bones were placed in little niches built in the stone or the coral of the marae.
The enclosure of the marae was ouskirted by trees regarded as sacred such as the banyan, the aito, the miro or rosewood and the tamanu, trees which sheltered birds seen as messengers of the gods and to which offerings would be made.
These marae also included other buildings like the fare tupapa’u, were the dead bodies were placed, the fare tahu’a or priest’s house …
The marae were at the image of the Polynesian hierarchised society. Besides some were royal marae or might belong to families. Thus, the biggest marae, an international marae, is the Taputapuatea marae on the island of Raiatea, which is regarded as the religious and cultural heart of Polynesia. But there are also the national marae associated to chieftainships and the localmarae built in the districts and valleys.
The meaning of the petroglyphs, motifs carved out of stone, is so far not yet clearly deciphered. The most famous petroglyphs are on the island of Tahiti and on the Marquesas. They often take the shape of turtles, geometric motifs or else anthropomorphic figures.
Thus, more than 7000 petroglyphs have been listed in the Marquesas islandswhich besides harbor the only rock paintings found in Polynesia. On the island of Ua Huka, on the archaeological site of Vaiki, at half-an-hour walk from Vaipaee, there are about fifty petroglyphs among which the figure of a sailing canoe, a unique motif in Polynesia. At Hiva Oa, near the village of Atuona, in the Takauku valley, a nine storey high massive stone fortification rises up towered by a splendid megalith engraved with several petroglyphs. It must be noted that this site has strange similarities with those on Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name bestowed on Easter Island).
On the island of Raiatea, the cradle of the Polynesian civilization according to the legend, about 300 petroglyphs have been found. A large number of petroglyphs can also be seen on the island of Maupiti.
As to Tahiti, spiral shaped petroglyphs carved out of three five-feet massive stones at intervals of 10 feet have been found on the site of the former Arue townhall. The peninsula also conceals such unexplained drawings. The most famous petroglyph discovered on Tahiti was in the Tipaerui valley, a petroglyph featuring the dual figure of a human being.
The tiki or “ti’i”
In his writings, Cook said “there was a little figure roughly carved out of stone near the pyramid; it is the only example of a sculpture we have ever seen among these peoples (…).“
The tiki is a sculpture the meaning and the appearance of which are still enigmatic, half way between art and religion, and most often anthropomorphic. Sculpted in coral, lava stone or carved out of wood, the tiki was sometimes clad withtapa.
The tiki have a religious and symbolic function. On the one hand, the tiki stands for deified ancestors ; according to the legend, the tiki would be the creator of man ; on the other hand, the tahu’a granted them the power of penetrating the victims. Polynesians believe these statues have powers and a special power called mana, and this is why they revere and even fear them.
God of the generation, the tiki is also the patron of sculptors who instituted an archetype of the deified ideal Man, whose particular proportions symbolized strength, beauty, prosperity… The characteristics of these sculptures found expression in a body divided into three parts of quite the same size and the common elements of which are the triangular face, the absence of neck, the arms stuck along the body and the short legs, sculptures more or less delicate according to the material used and their location in the Archipelagoes.
The Tiki‘s head, an essential element of the sculpture, symbolizes the power it shelters, the eyes expressing knowledge and supernatural power, whereas the stretched mouth, with its tongue or sometimes the teeth which can be seen, marks the defiance, the provocation launched to the opponent. These tiki were generally erected near a marae or could also adorn other places or objects such as canoes. They were also sources of inspiration for the design of tattooing motifs.
The size of the tiki vary from statuettes to huge statues. The biggest tiki, named Takai’i, 7.5ft high, was found on the island of Hiva Oa, on the marae of Iipona located in the Puamau Bay.
Voyage to the Islands of the Vast Ocean – Jacques Antoine Moerenhout. Captain Cook Voyage- Banks
History of Tahiti – Ph. REY LESCURE
The Discovery of Tahiti – Christian BUCHET
Department of culture