Review of ‘Lapita Design Form and Composition: Proceedings of the Lapita Design Workshop Canberra, Australia, December 1988’ edited by Matthew Spriggs

26th May 2014

‘Lapita Design Form and Composition: Proceedings of the Lapita Design Workshop Canberra, Australia, December 1988’ edited by Matthew Spriggs. 1990. Occasional Papers in Prehistory, Number 19. Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University. 142 pp. ISBN 0-7315-1150-6 (pbk)

Review by Jim Specht

The sub-title of this volume is misleading as only about one-third of the papers presented at the Workshop is included. The reader (buyer) is not being short-changed, however, for most of the omitted papers had little to do with the major theme, though it is particularly disappointing not to have Pat Kirch’s contribution. As a set of papers, the volume conveys little of the essence of the workshop experience, for the organising of which Spriggs was awarded his department’s Lady Godiva Award for Shamelessness.

As Spriggs notes in his Introduction (p.1), this is not a review volume – summary or otherwise – of ‘Lapita archaeology’, but a collection of papers mostly dealing with Lapita design and form. The volume divides into four parts: chronology (Spriggs); how to study decoration and form (Forge, Green. Anson, Siorat and Spriggs); how to study physical composition (Galipaud); and how to put some of this altogether (Sands).

Spriggs on chronology attempts to apply ‘chronometric hygiene’ (cf Spriggs 1989) to the western Pacific sites relevant to ‘Lapita archaeology’. The tabulation is more comprehensive than that of Kirch and Hunt (1988) and uses the Delta-R = 0 value for marine shell samples, yielding calibrated ages up to 120-140 years older than those of Kirch and Hunt. On both lists, however, few age results for materials associated with Lapita pottery are older than CAL 3500 BP, and most of these are on marine shell samples. This fits surprisingly well with data obtained from central New Britain since the Workshop was held. In that area Lapita pottery post-dates a massive volcanic event, the WK-2 event, of Mount Witori on the Hoskins Peninsula of the north coast, that devastated thousands of square kilometres of the island, including Talasea to the north and Kandrian to the south. A best estimate for the WK-2 event is about 3600 years ago, which would allow roughly a century for the recovery of the biota and stabilisation of the landscape prior to human recolonisation and the introduction of Lapita pottery. Earlier dates for Lapita pottery and evidence for its origins must be sought beyond the area seriously affected by the Wk-2 event (eg Manus, Mussau group, northern New Ireland and its eastern islands).

Mentioned in the date list, but not discussed in this volume is Spriggs’ idea of ‘Lapita without pots’ (pp.9-1 0), for which a maximum age of about CAL 3650 BP is indicated for Nissan Island in the North Solomons Province of PNG. This idea met with some resistance when first proposed in the mid-1980’s, reflecting the different views held by Spriggs and his critics about what is signified by the term ‘Lapita’ (cf Terrell 1989). This issue is not addressed in this volume, which generally treats it as a series of sherd collections with identical or similar decorative techniques and motifs, and (for Green, at least) vessel forms. This takes us back to Avias (1950), who recognised a likeness between sherds from the lie des Pins and Watom Island. Whereas Avias made his comparisons by general visual comparisons, later writers on Lapita design developed more analytical approaches (eg Mead 1973). Five papers in this volume deal with aspects of this topic, but from different points of view.

The late Anthony Forge’s paper summarises, in his inimitable way, how he and Sheila Korn handled comparisons between designs in different areas of the Abelam people of PNG. His paper is typically unpretentious and full of commonsense.

Forge and Korn approached Abeiam flat painting as if it were a set of archaeological data, and then compared the results of the analyses with his rich set of ethnographic information. Forge/Korn did not deal with meaning, but with structure and relationships along the lines of linguistic analysis. In this respect Forge’s approach originated from the same school of thought that gave rise to Mead’s ‘iconic analysis’ of Lapita design. Particularly interesting aspects of the study are his separation of main and minor design elements and identification of their contribution to an Abelam artistic system. This has great relevance to the study of Lapita design. Mead’s original study proposed recognising some design elements as zone markers, which implies that they separate different blocks of designs (‘meaning’). As such, they constitute main elements, for they function as a kind of ‘punctuation’. On the other hand, I would suggest that the allomorphs of triangles discussed by Anson (this volume) probably constitute minor elements in the sense that ‘meaning’ is conveyed by the triangle form, not the manner in which the triangle is depicted. The variant forms, as Anson attempts to show, are different ways of depicting the same design that reflect idiosyncratic behaviour at the individual or group level. Regrettably, Anthony never completed his analysis of Abelam art ‘as pressure of events and other research has intervened’ (p.30).

Much of the Workshop discussion focussed on whether we should analyse Lapita design through Mead’s ‘iconic analysis’ or Anson’s design element catalogue approach. This was really a non-issue, since it assumed a ‘correct’ way to conduct analysis. For some, this correct way was simply a convenience for inter-site and inter-areal comparisons, though no one actually dared to explain why these might be the only reasons for studying Lapita design. Mead’s original iconic analysis of Polynesian adze handles and Lapita pottery had very specific regional historical objectives, and neither fully explored or exhausted their potential, as Sharp (1988) has shown for Lapita pottery. Green’s ‘potted history’ of Lapita design analysis is a useful exposition of the subject, highlighting problems as well as results. Anson’s paper, on the other hand, explores why he adopted a catalogue approach which, as he himself acknowledges, addressed rather different issues to those of Mead. Underlying Mead’s iconic analysis was the search for structure and system; Anson, on the other hand, was interested in comparing Lapita sites within the Bismarck Archipelago and beyond to examine their temporal relationships and the development of Lapita in that region.

I can see great benefit in having a standardised descriptive scheme for Lapita design, but only if it permits each person to work at the level appropriate to the questions being asked of the material. For example, it would be inappropriate to use Anson’s approach if the question addressed were to do with design structure. A major challenge yet to be taken up is the question whether Lapita design structure changed through time. Does the incised component of Lapita pottery display the same structural system as that of the dentate-stamped? If there was a continuity between late Lapita and the ‘subsequent Incised and Relief’ styles (Spriggs, p.2) were the structural rules carried through? If we are to accept that the dentate-stamped designs are part of a design system that conveyed meaning, did meaning change? There seems to be increasing evidence that there was little long-distance movement of Lapita pottery (either in terms of space or volume). Are differences in design content matched by difference in the structural (and meaning) system? To address such questions we will need to employ both the Mead and the Anson approaches and, in some cases, that advocated by Siorat.

Siorat’s paper, presented in absentia, soon became known at the Workshop as the ‘forensic’ approach. His paper comprises two distinct parts. The first deals with the fine detail of design: what tools were used? How many? Were they re-used on several pots? His conclusions are very significant: a separate set of tools appears to have been used for each decorated pot, though there is currently no clear evidence as to the material from which the tools were made. In 1987 I carried out an experiment with several kinds of shell and wood, trying to make tools that replicate dentate-stamping. The best (because they require least preparation) were valves of Anadara antiquata. Wood was less successful, and bone was not attempted. The point to be noted, however, is that considerable labour is required to produce the tools, and even more to apply them. Yet even after several thousand applications, none was worn to the point where it had to be discarded (the test was rather casual and uncontrolled, consisting of school children impressing small blocks of clay). So why a new set for each dentate-stamped Lapita pot?

There is growing acceptance that plain (or incised) and dentate-stamped Lapita pots may have served different ritual or practical functions. Many years ago, I suggested viewing the Watom assemblage of sherds in terms of ‘different kinds of pottery for different uses, but made by the same people …’ (Specht, 1967:31), using an analogy with ‘fine’ and ‘course’ wares in Roman Britain. At that time the suggestion was ignored, for many viewed the dentate-stamped and incised and relief/plain sherds as originating from different industries or traditions, despite Golson’s (1971) attempt to bring a sense of balance into discussions of Lapita pottery. This echoed Otto Meyer’s division of his Watom finds into ‘non-Melanesian’ and ‘Melanesian’, with its inherently racist overtones unfortunately carried over by those who later saw Lapita pottery as a product of people ancestral to the Polynesians. We can now dump those outmoded and discriminatory views since they sought to interpret the Pacific past in terms of distorted views of the present.

While this short diversion into past attitudes does not answer the question ‘why a new set of tools for each dentate-stamped Lapita pot?’ it draws attention to the need for caution in seeking an answer. Siorat offers several, but before we rush in and choose one or another, we must ensure that we do not perpetuate outmoded attitudes. Given that the rate of production of dentate-stamped Lapita pots appears to have been at an extraordinarily low level, the answer must embrace both practical and social/ritual elements. It must be phrased, also, in terms that will allow a convincing dialectic to be developed, rather than a bald assertion of ‘ritual’ versus ‘utilitarian’ dichotomy.

The second half of Siorat’s paper presents a summary of a computer-based analytical scheme for Lapita design that shares aspects with both Mead and Anson. It is a pity that he does not provide an actual case of the application of this approach. Without this, and a more detailed description of procedures, it is impossible to evaluate whether his approach is worth pursuing further.

Spriggs’ paper on Lapita ‘faces’ is an entertaining attempt to come to grips with the complex curvilinear designs that are often avoided in detailed analyses. His paper is premised on the assumptions that (a) ‘designs would follow a progression from complex to simple over time’ and (b) designs progress from naturalistic to more abstract forms (p.84). No foundation is offered for either premise. If we accept them, however, Spriggs’ paper makes sense and reveals several possibly significant changes through time and spaces. The ‘face’ designs are almost entirely found in Far Western and Western Lapita sites. The temporal aspect is less clearly defined; they appear to be primarily a feature of Western Lapita. Some tabulations would have been useful here.

The remaining two papers by Galipaud and Sand address other aspects. Galipaud applies ‘physico-chemical’ analyses to New Caledonia Lapita pottery and argues for some movement of the pottery within the New Caledonian islands, but essentially it is near or at the production centres. His approach shows that there is a continuity between the Lapita pottery and the Paddle Impressed pottery in terms of raw materials, and he opts for the view (p.141) that the latter constituted the ‘common pottery used for everyday life’ – an echo of the ‘fine’ versus ‘course’ pottery referred to above. In other words, the different kinds of pottery reflect different behaviours, not different ‘people’ (p.140). This interpretation brings New Caledonia into line with Hunt’s (1980:198) re-evaluation of the Fijian evidence.

Sand’s paper adopts a more comprehensive overview of the pottery from the islands of Futuna and Alofi, extending the pioneer work of Kirch. Sand concludes that while the general history of pottery production and use on these islands broadly follows the trend of Eastern Lapita, there are particular local differences that cannot be accommodated by ‘the limits of a too tightly defined regional chronology’ (p.132). His paper is an invaluable contribution to the volume, for it presents material from ORSTOM reports that are not widely available, particularly in the English language.

Overall, this is an important volume that deserves to be read closely and used carefully. It offers no simple answers to most questions, or even an attempt to synthesise the varied subject matter. Rather, it identifies problems and some possible avenues for their examination. In that respect it reflects faithfully the tone of the Workshop. So, too, does the varied nature of the contents, both geographically and topically. I regret, however, that the Lapita-as-a-regional-phenomenon view permeates the volume, albeit at times implicitly. The time is rapidly approaching when we will need a critical appreciation of ‘Lapita archaeology’ along the lines that Kent Flannery did for early Meso-American villages. But who will be the Graduate Student?


Golson, J. 1971 Lapita ware and its transformations. In R.C. Green and M. Kelly (eds), Studies in Oceanic Culture History 2:67-76. Pacific Anthropological Records No. 12. B.P. Bishop Museum: Honolulu.

Hunt, T.L. 1980 Towards Fiji’s past: archaeological research on southwestern Viti Levu. MA thesis. University of Auckland: Auckland.

Hunt, T. L. 1986 Conceptual and substantive issues in Fijian prehistory. In P.V. Kirch (ed.), Island Societies; Archaeological Approaches to Evolution and Transformation, pp.20-32. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Mead, S. M. 1973 The decorative system of the Lapita potters of Sigatoka. Fiji. Journal of the Polynesian Society 82(3): 19-43.

Sharp. N.D. 1988 Style and substance: a reconsideration of the Lapita decorative system. In P.V. Kirch and L. Hunt (eds), Archaeology of the Laplta Cultural Complex: A Critical Review, pp.61-81. Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum Re- search Report No.5. Burke Museum: Seattle.

Specht, J. 1967 Lapita-style pottery and Watom Island. South Pacific Bulletin 17 (2): 29-31.

Spriggs, M. 1989 The dating of the Island Southeast Asian Neolithic: an attempt at chronometric hygiene and linguistic correlation. Antiquity 63: 587-613.

Terrell, J. 1989 Commentary: what Lapita is and what Lapita isn’t. Antiquity 63: 623-6.

Specht, J.
Review of ‘Lapita Design Form and Composition: Proceedings of the Lapita Design Workshop Canberra, Australia, December 1988’ edited by Matthew Spriggs
June 1992
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