Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Length: 51.000 cm
Gift of W. Scoresby Routledge
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Orongo, Easter Island (Rapa Nui),
Possibly late 18th century - mid 19th century AD
The boulder is carved in low relief with a birdman figure holding an egg. It records a ritual race that took place as part of the annual feast of the birdman held in the Orongo area, adjacent to the shore of Easter Island.
The powerful leaders competing in the race each sent a representative (hopu) to climb the steep slopes down to the sea and swim out to the nearby islet of Motu Iti. There they collected one of the first eggs laid by a sooty tern, and brought it back undamaged. It was thought that Makemake - the major god of the Easter Islanders, often represented with a bird's head and a mainly human body - assisted the successful hopu, and his 'master' held the prestigious position of 'bird-man' for a year until the next competition. Another related ceremony consisted of chanting by 'rongorongo men', their memory aided by a form of script carved on wooden or stone tablets.
The boulder was collected by Katherine Routledge, wife of William Scoresby Routledge. Her collections are now in both The British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. The couple sailed to Easter Island from England on their yacht Mana, accompanied by Lieutenant Ritchie of the Royal Navy. Their expedition (1914-15) captured the imagination of the British public; their story was covered in the press and the couple gave several public lectures on their return. Katherine Routledge is now increasingly recognized as an important pioneer in archaeological and ethnographic research on Easter Island. Her main informant was Juan Tepano, an Easter Islander. Her work included the excavation and mapping of the ancient ceremonial centre of Orongo, whose basalt rocks are carved with numerous bird figures. Fortunately, Routledge was able to record information about the birdman cult while it was still possible to do so: the cult had declined in the 1860s with the arrival of Christianity, and memories of the associated rituals were rapidly fading.
J.A. Van Tilburg, Easter Island: archaeology, ec (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
K.S. Routledge, The mystery of Easter Island (London, Sifton, Praed and Co., 1919)
A. Metraux, Ethnology of Easter Island (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 160, reprinted 1971)