Burley studies Tongan tombs

March 23, 2006, vol. 35, no. 6
By Diane Luckow

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Snow and cold temperatures were a welcome change for David Burley on his recent return from the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, where the temperatures still hover at 30 degrees centigrade at 3 a.m.

Burley, a professor of archaeology who has worked in Tonga for the past 17 years, has begun a project at the request of Princess Siu'ilikutapu, who asked him to help record the history of Lapaha, the capital of the former Tongan maritime empire, which controlled large parts of the South Pacific during the 15th to 18th centuries.

The princess had prepared a community plan to revive the people's historical pride in their community and "she asked for my assistance in documenting the archaeology and oral traditions of the place," Burley explains. As part of the same project, he is collaborating with Geoffrey Clark from Australian National University, who is using laser imaging technology and ground-penetrating radar to map and peer into the secret, sacred interiors of the massive stone tombs built for the ancient Tongan kings between the 13th and 19th centuries.

"It's really quite an exciting project," says Burley, "because these tombs have always been considered sacred and not available for archaeologists to study in detail."

For his part, Burley has been interviewing knowledgeable people in the community about Lapaha's history as well as working with the ha'atufunga, the hereditary undertakers whose ancestors were responsible for tomb construction and burial of the kings. "These are the only people who could touch the dying kings and the only ones who could go into the tombs and who held knowledge of what's in them," says Burley. "The undertakers still bury high-ranking Tongan chiefs in the tombs, and to move the massive stone cover off the burial vaults is a feat requiring more than 150 people with ropes and pulleys."

Burley will return to Tonga in August to continue his interviews and hopes to complete his portion of the project by early next year. "Out of all this," he says, "we're going to have a very detailed record of one of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific."

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