Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Collapsed Empires: Nan Madol-Pohnpei

I have occasionally posted on collapsed empires and societies beyond the usual Maya, Southwest Indian, Roman groups that are beat to death by the usual collapse suspects  (Tainter and company).  Too much is extrapolated from too few data points.  I try to pick the lesser known one because people don't realize how many, and how far flung they are.  There are empires that were noted a number of times in ancient texts, that are so badly lost to time that archaeologists still argue which ruins belong to them.  It's as if people in 2,000 years were arguing about which set of ruins was Washington DC, and which ones are London.

Well we will go to a new area for us.  The Pacific Ocean.  Ocean had a number of geographically enormous empires.  The populations were small by necessity, but the geographic spread of the central empirical influence was huge.

Nan Madol-Pohnpei was a smallish pacific island empire.  It is Northeast of Papua New Guinia (2,200km), north and east of Australia (slightly over 4,000km from Brisbane).  As part of Micronesia, the inhabitants are, I gather, a related group to the Polynesians.
And they had an empire.  An empire we know a little about because they left some very impressive remains behind, and because there were some stories told by their surviving ancestors.  But we don't know for sure how long it lasted (could be as early as 100 A.D. to somewhere close to 1700), and we don't know how they built the only ancient city situated on a coral reef.

Nan Madol-Pohnpei
Nan Madol reportedly was the ceremonial and political seat of the Sau Deleur dynasty which united Pohnpei's estimated 25,000 people in late prehistoric times.Oral history as well as archaeological evidence substantiate Nan Madol's position as the island's preeminent political and religious center up until the A.D. 1500s when the centralized system collapsed.
Today Nan Madol forms an archaeological district covering more than 18 sq. km and includes the stone architecture built up on a coral reef flat along the shore of Temwen Island (Nan Madol Central), several other artificial islets, and the adjacent Pohnpei main island coastline.The site core with its stone walls encloses an area approximately 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide and it contains nearly 100 artificial islets--stone and coral fill platforms--bordered by tidal canals.It estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 metric tons of building material were transported from varying distances into the site...
Nan Madol: The City Built on Coral Reefs
Christopher Pala, Smithsonian Magazine, 3 November 2009
Nan Madol is composed of 92 artificial islands spread over 200 acres abutting Pohnpei’s mangrove-covered shore. Most of it was built from the 13th to the 17th centuries by the Saudeleurs, descendants of two brothers of unknown provenance who founded a religious community in the sixth century focused on the adoration of the sea. On their third attempt to build their political, religious and residential center, they settled on this patch of coral flats. They and their successors brought from the other side of the island columns of black lava rock up to 20 feet long that are naturally pentagonal or hexagonal and straight. They used them in a log cabin formation to build outer walls as well as foundations filled in with lumps of coral to create elevated platforms where traditional thatched structures were used as lodgings. Even with all the sunshine in the world washing over the thick green jungle and aquamarine water beyond, the unadorned black architecture is intimidating. 
Besides the elegance of the walls and platforms, there is no carving, no art – nothing except legend to remember the people, called the Saudeleur, who ruled the island for more than a millennium. They were deeply religious and sometimes cruel, and modern Pohnpeians view the ruins as a sacred and scary place where spirits own the night.
The famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft apparently used Nan Madol as part of his inspiration for the sunken R'lyeh where Cthulhu sleeps.

Thumbnail from slide show at Smithsonian link.


Francis Lee said...

Never had a clue until now they existed!

russell1200 said...

Francis- I would have thought you had a fleet of 6mm all painted up!