Ofu yields significant archaeological find

First of its kind in the Samoa archipelago

Samoa News has recently learned that Ofu is the site of one of the Pacific’s most significant archaeological finds in recent memory, and working on that island currently is a group of archaeology professors and students continuing an investigation there, which began in the last years of the last century.

The head of the research team, Dr. Jeffrey Clark, professor of archaeology, says that “Nothing like that has ever been found in that region of the world” — referring to finding shards of plain-ware pottery, which pre-dates Lapita pottery.

David Herdrich, American Samoa Historic Preservation Officer said, “Dr. Clark’s find is a very important discovery for American Samoan and Pacific archaeology and I look forward to the publication of the full analysis of the pot and the site in which it was found.”

Herdrich told Samoa News that this pottery is sometimes referred to as “Polynesian plain-ware” — which is distinctly different from Lapita pottery, which is highly decorated — and the plain-ware is from an earlier era.


This past Sunday, members of the group arrived in American Samoa.

Led by Dr. Jeffrey Clark, professor of archaeology, and Dr. Donald Schwert, a geology professor, of North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, N.D., the group is being joined by Seth Quintus, a former student at NDSU who is now in the doctoral program at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and specializing in the archaeology of Samoa. 

Together, the nine-person research team will be continuing investigations on the early settlement on Ofu.

From the distant past, they will be looking for answers to many questions — When did people first arrive in Manu’a? What was the island coastline like when those first people arrived? Has the sea level changed since they came? How has the island coastline and landscape changed over time and how did people respond to those changes? How did people live on the island — what did they eat, how did they distribute themselves across the island, did they engage in trade with other islands? 

The research currently being conducted is part of a long-term effort by Dr. Clark to study the prehistoric period in the central Pacific. He did his first archaeological work in American Samoa in 1980, when he compiled an inventory of archaeological sites in the islands for the then fledgling American Samoa Government Historic Preservation Office (ASHPO).

Since then, ASHPO has grown and is now an important government agency for matters related to the anthropological heritage of the people of American Samoa — in matters both cultural and physical.

Clark has returned to American Samoa many times for investigations on all of the islands in the territory, except Rose and Swains.


In 1997 and 1999, Clark began working on Ofu.

In the front lawn of the Va’oto Lodge, he discovered evidence of an early settlement in the soil layers going down four to five feet beneath the surface. He returned to the Va’oto site in 2010 and 2011, and is back again this summer. 

Said Dr. Clark of the site, “The work at Va’oto has proved to be remarkably productive. While most of the materials found at the site are only fragments, they represent a broad range of activities. The materials recovered include pieces of shell fishhooks, files for making fishhooks, net sinkers, shell bracelets and beads, stone tools, and abundant pottery pieces, called shards.”

According to Clark, perhaps the most remarkable find at the site was made in 2010 when student excavators, digging in a pit that measured 1x 2 meters, revealed the edge of a rim from what had been a large pot. The rim shard was left in place while digging proceeded carefully around it. As the digging progressed, the students discovered more and more pieces, but they appeared to all be on edge and started to form a circular pattern. The researchers eventually realized that they had the entire rim of the mouth of a large pottery bowl. Clark instructed the students to dig around the shards, leaving them in place until the full extent of the pottery could be revealed.

“We conducted the excavation of the pot with dental picks, a 2-inch soft brush, and a small wood splint until it was completely exposed,” said NDSU student Clayton Knudson, who was the lead excavator of the pot. What the NDSU student researchers had discovered was a single large clay pot used for cooking, nearly intact and in an upright position. They painstakingly revealed the pot, where it had been left long ago.

Inside the pot were a few large shards that were distinct from the pot, but mostly the pot was filled with small cooking stones similar to what archaeologists have found in oven features in the soil layers. There were also traces of decomposing small bones. The exterior of the pot was undecorated, as is typical of the pottery found in Samoa.

Describing the pot in detail, Clark noted, “The clay of the pot was moisture-saturated and a network of minute fractures ran through the clay of the vessel. These conditions prevented removing the pot as one solid unit, as it began to fragment. The individual pieces also crumbled, indicating that the pot had not been well fired when it was made.”

He said that all pieces were carefully removed, wrapped in paper toweling, numbered and shipped back to Fargo, N.D., for further study.

“Unfortunately, most of the shards were in such poor condition that the pot cannot be reconstructed. But much can still be learned from its study,” he said.

Although the clay pot cannot be dated directly, charcoal from the sand layers above and below the pot were dated by the carbon-14 method which indicated an age of about 2,400 years. Soil layers beneath the pot that also held cultural materials appear to go back about 2,700 years, making this one of the oldest archaeological deposits in the Samoan Archipelago.

Said the professor, “Further work at this and other coastal sites on Ofu is needed to confirm that antiquity for human occupation of Ofu.”

“The Va’oto site, along with others on Ofu, has a lot to tell us yet about how the first colonists in Manu’a adapted to their environment, and how their lifestyle changed over time. The fact that Samoans abandoned pottery making long before Europeans arrived is but one example of those changes. Another significant change was the eventual movement of most, if not all, people to a settlement in the interior of the island, and then, many centuries later, the move back to the coast.

“With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, the research team from North Dakota will collect more evidence this summer that helps us understand the past on this important little island and throughout the Samoan islands.” Clark told Samoa News.


The island of Ofu, in the Manu’a island group, is known for many things — world class snorkeling, fishing and scuba diving, white coral beaches (ranked by those who study beaches as some of the best in the world), pristine waters, a vibrant coral reef, and sunsets to rival any place of such wild beauty.

Along with Olosega, it is part of the National Park of American Samoa, and the only National Park of the United States in the Southern hemisphere. A place of legends, the Manu’a islands hold great significance in the lore and history of the Samoan people, whose kings and warriors lived in the remote island group for centuries.


Comment Here