Simon Fraser University

South Sea island beckons archaeologist

Jul 11, 2002 , vol. 24, no. 6

By Marianne Meadahl

Fifty years have passed since SFU professor emeritus Richard Shutler was a graduate student at Berkeley, eager to sell his car and give up his apartment for the chance to be among the first archaeologists to carry out research in the South Pacific.

Shutler spent seven months with his professor, E.W. Gifford, on the island of New Caledonia, about 700 miles north of Australia, surveying much of the island. Shutler and Gifford excavated 14 key sites on that island, with the jewel being site number 13, where several large pottery pieces, dating back 2,500 years, were uncovered.

The pottery is called Lapita, named for the archeological site, first excavated by Shutler and Gifford, where it was found.

“We focused much of our attention on searching for clues to learn more about where the native people came from, what routes they took to travel the region and so forth,” says Shutler. “Then we started getting this beautiful pottery. These were the first bits of evidence that could tell us how the people came there. Why did they stop making it? That's the big question,” he adds.

Half a century later, the nearly 17,000 archaeological items collected by Shutler and Gifford, who was curator of the museum of anthropology at Berkeley, remain intact in the conservation basements of the museum at Berkeley. Until recently, some of their findings were the only prehistoric studies to focus on the region.

Fifty years ago Shutler was one of only half a dozen archaeologists working in the entire Pacific region. Today he estimates there are about 50 carrying out research in the area. Research in neighbouring Fiji, for example, is under way this summer, led by SFU archaeologist David Burley.

Now Shutler is being invited back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first excavation at the site known as Lapita in the summer of 1952.
He calls the invitation an amazing honour. “I'm the last of the earliest archaeologists to have worked in the region,” says Shutler, whose invitation was personally delivered, along with gifts from local native chiefs, by the current archaeologist in residence on the island. “Back then the region was untouched. As a young archaeologist, it was an exciting time.”

Shutler later worked on excavations in Vanuatu, now an independent country (for which he received an honour from its government in 1996) and the Caroline Islands. He came to SFU as department chair in 1979.

While at SFU, Shutler became interested in human origins and spent two seasons in China, at a one million-year-old site in Inner Mongolia.

Shutler and several other SFU archaeologists will attend an international conference Aug. 1-7 along with experts in oceanic prehistory from around the world.

They'll commemorate the excavation for its role as the first step in scientific archaeological research in the Pacific. Shutler will also receive a book of tributes published for the event.