Archaeologists shine new light on Easter Island statue
A team of archaeologists from the University of Southampton have used the latest in digital imaging technology to record and analyse carvings on the Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai’a…
Hoa Hakananai’a was brought to England in 1869 by the crew of HMS Topaze. It is traditionally said to have been carved around AD1200. The Island is home to around 1,000 similar statues, but Hoa Hakananai’a is of particular interest because of the intricate carvings on its back.
It is popularly believed that around AD1600 the Easter Islanders faced an ecological crisis and stopped worshipping their iconic statues. The Rapa Nui, as they are known, turned instead to a new birdman religion, or cult. This included a ritual based around collecting the first egg of migrating terns from a nearby islet, Motu Nui. The ‘winner’, whose representative swam to the islet and then back with the egg, was afforded sacred status for a year.
Hoa Hakananai’a survived this shift in religious beliefs by being placed in a stone hut and covered in carved ‘petroglyphs’, or rock engravings, depicting motifs from the birdman cult. As such, it may be representative of the transition from the cult of statues to the cult of the birdman.
The team from the University of Southampton examined Hoa Hakananai’a using two different techniques: Photogrammetric Modelling; which involved taking hundreds of photos from different angles to produce a fully textured computer model of the statue, capable of being rotated in 360 degrees; and Reflectance Transformation Imaging; a process which allows a virtual light source to be moved across the surface of a digital image of the statue, using the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-seen-before details.