Stars and stones: What influenced the positions of prehistoric monuments
Once upon a time, Odalmelech, the god of Ngermelech Village in Melekeok State of Palau, and his councilmen set out to lay huge stonework over the village ground.
That very night, they started hauling in big reef stones for the project. By dawn, the project was only partially completed.
When Odalmelech saw the incomplete work, he told his crew it was shameful to be caught working in the morning sun. He ordered the crew to carve their faces on the stone monoliths and position them toward the rising sun.
The set of monoliths in Melekeok — nine stone faces in two rows parallel to the shoreline—is one of the most intriguing prehistoric structures in Palau that attract visitors from all over the world.
The legend surrounding these sculptures in Melekeok indicates the site’s possible astronomical significance to the ancient Palauans, according to William N. Morgan, who studied the prehistoric architecture in Micronesia.
Morgan’s research published in 1988 was widely cited by César Esteban, an astrophysics lecturer at La Laguna University, in his work titled “Orientations of Prehistoric Stone Monuments in Western Polynesia and Micronesia.” Published in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Esteban’s 2002 report found more interesting observations on prehistoric monuments inspired by their astronomical potential.
Mariana Islands: The ancient Chamorus built latte houses between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1650 in the Northern Mariana Islands. Morgan described the latte structures as "end-to-end alignment parallel to nearby coastlines, watercourses, or other features of the natural terrain."
On Guam, Esteban noted that burials were found near the seaward side of many latte stones. In Tumon Bay, 17 extended burials were found in one of the latte structures. "The skeletons lay on their backs with their feet pointing toward the sea and their heads pointing inland, suggesting that the seaward orientation may have held special significance for the ancient Chamorus, and this was likely the direction of the major entrance of the latte houses."
Pohnpei: Nan Madol, the largest archaeological site in Micronesia, is divided into two areas: Madol Powe and Madol Pah, the mortuary zone and the priests’ residence, respectively.
Nandauwas, the royal mortuary islet of the Saudeleurs in Madol Powe, is enclosed by defensive walls along all directions except the southeast perimeter where the mortuary compound is located. The open side falls off steeply toward a deep gorge indicating that the tombs have a clear horizon to the east.
Kosrae: Pohnpeian legend says that Kosraean warriors set sail to Pohnpei and overthrew the Saudeleur dynasty and ruled that island. Tokosra, an urban complex that covered the entire lowland area of Leluh Island contained 17 sacred compounds and three royal tomb compounds.
"The long axes of the crypts of all the tombs are oriented from northeast to southwest, but this is also the general orientation of the city,” according to Morgan.
Tonga and Samoa: Esteban noted that Tonga and Samoa have a large number of earth stone mounds whose orientations would be of interest to determine their astronomical potential.
In Samoa for example, the gigantic Pulemelei mound is quite probably the largest surviving prehistoric monument in Polynesia and seems to be oriented along the east-west axis.
Esteban noted that the most common archaeological features of Tonga are round or rectangular mounds of earth of varying sizes. These mounds are either old house or living mounds or former burial mounds, arranged roughly parallel to the shoreline. This is the most common orientation pattern of the ceremonial platforms of Eastern Polynesia.
In his book “Pathways to the Tongan Past: An Exhibition of Three Decades of Modern Archaeology in the Kingdom of Tonga,” Dirk H.R. Spennemann wrote that "the heads of people buried in the investigated burial mounds in Tonga have been found to point mainly to the east and occasionally to the north and south, but never to the west, where Pulotu, the underworld and land of the dead, is located for the islanders."
Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. Send feedback to email@example.com