Wooden tablet with rongorongo inscription

From Easter Island, Polynesia,

Probably mid-19th century AD

It is believed that the rongorongo script was developed on Easter Island some time after the Spanish visit in 1770, possibly inspired by a written document of annexation given to the islanders to sign. However, from the 1860s the islanders began to lose the ability to read it, and no inhabitant of Easter Island is able to read it today.

The word rongorongo came from the Polynesian island of Mangareva, and was applied to the script carved on staves or tablets used as mnemonic devices in the ritual chanting by the so-called rongorongo men. These were men who competed in an annual ritual associated with the birdman cult, which is connected to the deity Makemake.

Several scholars have tried to decipher the script but as yet without complete success, hindered by the small number of tablets. It appears to be a writing system which mixes ideographs (where each concept is represented by a symbol) with a phonetic alphabet. The inscription on this example is executed as a continuous line of glyphs starting from the lower left-hand corner toward the right. When the line is completed, the tablet is turned upside down and the inscription is continued from left to right. Every other line is thus upside down.

Dr Steven Fischer has published descriptions and photographs of the known examples of wooden and stone tablets, and other artefacts bearing glyphs. He has recently proposed a decipherment, arguing that the rongorongo boards record creation chants. He used a staff in the collections of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, Santiago, Chile as his key, or 'Rosetta Stone'.

This tablet was purchased from Mr F. Godsell in 1903. Godsell acquired it from his father. It is not certain how it came into the possession of the family.

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More information

Bibliography

J.A. Van Tilburg, Easter Island: archaeology, ec (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

O.M. Dalton, 'On an inscribed wooden tablet from Easter Island (Rapa Nui), in the British Museum', Man-3, 3 (1903), no. 1, pp. 1-7

R. Parkinson, Cracking codes: the Rosetta St (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

S.R. Fischer, Rongorongo: the Easter Island (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997)

Dimensions

Length: 22.000 cm
Width: 6.800 cm

Museum number

AOA 1903-150

EOC10618

Location

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