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  • By Raquel Bagnol

Arresting the threat of Nan Madol’s destruction

The dead cannot rest in peace when their tombs are disturbed. The impacts of natural disturbances and rampant desecrations compromise the preservation of the ancient burial grounds in Nan Madol, an archaeological site adjacent to the eastern shore of the island of Pohnpei.

Cultural conservationists have stepped in and initiated extensive efforts to salvage and protect Nan Madol’s archaeological, historical and cultural wealth from manmade activities and environmental anomalies.

Built around AD1200 and occupied until about AD 1600, the Nan Madol site complex comprises about 100 artificial islands along the coral reef and is considered to be one of the largest ceremonial sites in the Pacific Islands region. It was the capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty until about 1628.

In 2016, the site landed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites that are in danger “due to threats, notably the siltation of waterways that is contributing to the unchecked growth of mangroves and undermining existing edifices.”

Two years later, archaeologists from the Cultural Site Research and Management Foundation started working with various agencies on the Nan Madol World Heritage Sustainable Conservation Plan to preserve this important location.

The disturbance of its burial sites was discovered in 2008 by a team of archeologists led by William S. Ayres, Katherine Seikel and Maureece Levin.

The team conducted the project with the Pohnpei Archaeological Survey Program in partnership with the University of Oregon Anthropology Department to map and document the burial sites on the island. The project covers the islets of Angeir, Sapwuhtik B, Lukepenkarian (connecting these to Karian Islet), Nan Douwas and Pahnwi.

The team cited the survey’s importance in understanding and evaluating the historic resources of Pohnpei. The goal is to “determine how these sites should be protected to conserve their archaeological past."

Archeologists spent nearly four weeks exploring the different burial sites in Nan Madol. They noted that the tomb structures were in danger of deterioration due to manmade and natural factors.

The team noted that visitors to the burial sites have created a direct disturbance to the surfaces of the islets. There was evidence of digging in search of artifacts, removal and breaking of rocks, clearing of vegetation, sand removal and traces of fire-making in the sites. Burial sites with easy access were found to be more prone to disturbances.

The construction of walkways linking the islets left an impact on the architectural stability of the original walls of the islets. Other sites faced deformation because of rock quarrying nearby.

Besides human activities, the archeological sites are being threatened by natural impacts such as overgrown vegetation invading the tombs and other structural remains. Tidal erosion has also caused washouts of the seawall and high wave action.

The structural remains have been increasingly exposed in the past two decades, faced with the gradual physical breakdown of coral rubble fill supporting basalt construction materials. This causes the architectural collapse of the tombs.


On various sites, the team noted two shell adzes and a basalt flake, coral beads and other artifacts. Skeletal human remains that were found in the sites during previous inspections in the early 1990s were now gone.

One interesting observation in almost all of the burial sites at Nan Madol was the presence of shellfish carcasses on the surface of the tomb chambers and scattered throughout the enclosure. The presence of shellfish suggests feasting or ritual purposes.

The team said the documentation of these burial sites is essential for understanding the material remains of the past. They recommended educating visitors to the site about Nan Madol’s protected status to help prevent the continued extraction of cultural items from the site, thereby contributing to the preservation of Pohnpei’s archaeological past.

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