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Height: 242 cm
Width: 100 cm
Depth: 55 cm
Collected by the crew of HMS Topaze
Gift of H.M. Queen Victoria
Room 24: Living and Dying
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This is a giant stone sculpture of a human figure from Orongo, Easter Island. The island is known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui. The figure dates from around AD 1000.
There are two images on this page, one showing the front of the sculpture, the other showing the reverse.
Easter Island is famous for stone statues such as this one. They are known as moai (meaning 'statue'). They were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around AD 1000 until the second half of the seventeenth century. Originally, many of them stood on stone platforms.
This figure is known as Hoa Hakananai'a, meaning 'stolen or hidden friend'. It is a monumental carving of the head and torso of a man, almost twice life-size. The proportions are typical of these statues, with the head being one-third of the total height.
In the British Museum, the figure is set on a stone platform just over a metre high so that it towers above the visitor. Estimated to weigh around four tons, it is carved out of dark grey basalt - a hard, dense, fine-grained volcanic rock. The surface of the rock is rough and pitted, and pinpricks of light sparkle as tiny crystals in the rock glint. Basalt is difficult to carve and unforgiving of errors. The sculpture was probably commissioned by a high status individual.
Hoa Hakananai'a's head is slightly tilted back, as if scanning a distant horizon. He has a prominent eyebrow ridge shadowing the empty sockets of his eyes. These once would have been filled by coral and stone eyeballs. The nose is long and straight, ending in large oval nostrils. The thin lips are set into a downward curve, giving the face a stern, uncompromising expression. A faint vertical line in low relief runs from the centre of the mouth to the chin. The jawline is well defined and massive, and the ears are long, beginning at the top of the head and ending with pendulous lobes.
The figure's collarbone is emphasized by a curved indentation, and his chest is defined by carved lines that run downwards from the top of his arms and curve upwards onto the breast to end in the small protruding bumps of his nipples. The arms are held close against the side of the body, the hands rudimentary, carved in low relief.
The second image shows the rear of the sculpture.
The figure's back is covered with ceremonial designs, some carved in low relief, others incised. These show images relating to the island's birdman cult, which developed after about AD 1400. The key birdman cult ritual was an annual trial of strength and endurance, in which the chiefs and their followers competed. The victorious chief then represented the creator god, Makemake, for the following year.
Carved on the upper back and shoulders are two birdmen, facing each other. These have human hands and feet, and the head of a frigate bird. In the centre of the head is the carving of a small fledgling bird with an open beak. This is flanked by carvings of ceremonial dance paddles known as 'ao, with faces carved into them. On the left ear is another 'ao, and running from top to bottom of the right ear are four shapes like inverted 'V's representing the female vulva. These carvings are believed to have been added at a later date.
As the birdman cult developed, from about the 1600s, the moai were gradually toppled from their platforms. When Captain Cook's crew visited Easter Island in 1774, William Hodges, Cook's artist, produced an oil painting of the island showing a number of moai, some of them with hat-shaped stone 'topknots'. Hodges depicted most of the moai standing upright on stone platforms, known as ahu. After 1838 at a time of social collapse following European intervention, the remaining standing moai were toppled.