Review of ‘Archaeology of the coastal exchange system: Sites and ceramics of the Papuan Gulf’ edited by David Frankel and James W. Rhodes

09th January 2014

‘Archaeology of the coastal exchange system: Sites and ceramics of the Papuan Gulf’ edited by David Frankel and James W. Rhodes, 1994, Research Papers in Archaeology and Natural History 25, Division of Archaeology and Natural History, RSPAS, The Australian National University, x + 69 pp. ISBN 0-7315-2084-X (pbk)

Review by J. Peter White

This book, the first of a series under this name but continuing the numbering of a previous series, consists centrally of two studies of ceramics from the Gulf area of Papua New Guinea. These ceramics are suspected of being a product of the hiri exchange system, which appears to have been in existence for perhaps the period AD 1200/1400-1900. If the pots are hiri products, then they should have been made in the Port Moresby region.

The sites from which the ceramics come are mostly on ridges, all within 5 km of the sea. These are open sites, revealed by gardens or roads, otherwise invisible. Only one (OAP) at Kinomere village is on an artificial island in the Kikori Delta itself, surrounded by tidal mangroves. Thus the pottery at most sites must have been carried by land as well as sea, no small task given that thousands of pots annually arrived in the area, which was probably always lightly populated. Most of the pottery from most sites comes from the surface, the clay soil precluding sieving and the very coarse stratification rendering this of questionable value anyway.

The book is written in two parts. Part 1, by Frankel, Thompson and Vanderwal, is primarily a wide-ranging set of exploratory multivariate analyses of shape, decoration and composition of pots. Much of this work clearly derives from Thompson’s Honours theses and subsequent research, though the approach to form, in particular, derives from Frankel’s previous no-nonsense approaches in other parts of the world. Its results maybe summarized as:

1. Some seriation of shape and decoration is possible. This shows a decline in composite vessels and less diversity in form over time, a trend which is probably matched in the Moresby region. The sites are therefore thought to date between AD 1400 and AD 1900, though the radiocarbon dates are of little help.

2. Concurrently there is a change from decoration by impression to incision and from combing to no use of this technique.

3.  In fabric there is some matching between Gulf sherds and some from Motupore (currently the most available data in the Moresby area) but, with one partial exception, no matches with reference samples from known clay sources around Bootless Bay. However, the same is so far largely true at Motupore itself and shows that the technique of clay s o m e identification still needs work.

Part 2, by Rhoads, is about the Popo site (PNG site code not given), 2.5 km inland but apparently a coastal site at the time of occupation. These 15 pages provide a more complete site report than the first part, but still concentrate on ceramics. These are linked more directly to the Morseby material. The range of shape and decoration indicates a likely equivalence with Thompson’s oldest sites. Rhoads also demonstrates a more convincing fabric link between sherds from Popo and the Bootless Bay area, seemingly because he is more accepting of previous analyses.

This publication is only an introduction to hiri archaeology in the Gulf. Working in an environmentally difficult area for archaeology, Frankel, Rhoads and c* workers have shown both that data are available and that there are useful avenues of analysis, though these have theoretical and methodological problems which still need addressing. But, as Rhoads points out in his conclusion, now we need systematically derived data sets, as well as some more of the still unpublished site reports from the Port Moresby area for comparison.

White, J.P.
Review of 'Archaeology of the coastal exchange system: Sites and ceramics of the Papuan Gulf’ edited by David Frankel and James W. Rhodes
December 1995
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