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What pottery sherds say about the past

By Raquel Bagnol

A story goes that in 1952, American archaeologists picked up a piece of pottery from the pit they were digging in New Caledonia. When natives from the area arrived and saw them, they shouted "xaapeta!" In the local Haveke language, it means "to dig a hole."

The archaeologists thought that the natives were excited at their discovery. They thought that "xaapeta" was the name of the culture that was represented by the piece of pottery. They coined the word Lapita in their scientific paper, and the name Lapita stuck.

Lapita refers to prehistoric Austronesian people believed to be the common ancestor of the cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia and some parts of Melanesia. They were seafaring people who originally came from Southeast Asia around 1500 B.C.

In the next hundreds of years, they began to spread into the central and eastern Pacific.

Archaeologists later unearthed traces of their presence through the Lapita pottery in New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomons, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

One outstanding feature of the Lapita pottery is the intricate geometric patterns and designs that they stamped onto it. Back then, there were no giant ceramics factories with pre-fabricated molds to design them.

The ceramics were stamped with intricate designs like repeating geometric patterns, faces and figures, as well the indigenous designs found in modern Polynesian tattoos and barkcloth.

The crafters used different techniques depending on what materials were available, like shells, bird bone or sand.

The patterns were incised into the wet clay pots with a comblike tool— this process was called “dentate stamping”— then set over a low fire.

Many of the large Lapita ceramics were used for cooking, serving or storing food.

In a 147-page paper published by the University of California Press in 1956, American archaeologists E.W. Gifford and Dick Shutler, Jr. showed hundreds of designs in the incised Lapita pottery sherds they unearthed from Lapita sites all over New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands.

The designs are a showcase of craftsmanship and artistic talent and each sherd tells volumes of stories about the Lapita culture.


Lapita pottery excavated from the different Lapita sites tell the stories of the initial human colonization in these islands.

Classic Lapita pottery was produced between 1,600 and 1,000 BCE on the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Western Polynesia.

For about three centuries, the Lapita people maintained their elaborate pottery designs, but as they moved eastward toward Samoa, their designs became simpler and less decorative over time.


Wal Ambrose, of the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University, noted that the Lapita pottery art transitioned to undecorated plain ware, such as beakers, cooking pots and bowls, shell artifacts, adzes and stone tools.

Perhaps the labor-intensive dentate stamping of the ceramics became too burdensome to the descendants of the early settlers as they expanded their interests and other priorities.

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