PhD Dissertations: Travis Freeland, 2018

Monumental Architecture and Landscape History of the Tongan Classical Chiefdom


Beginning ca. AD 950, increasing populations and the rise of socio-political hierarchies in Tonga, West Polynesia, resulted in the development of a dynastic, geographically integrated, paramount chiefdom. The principal island of Tongatapu was the epicentre of this polity. Ranked chiefs affirmed power and rights to land through monumental construction and a dispersed settlement pattern that fully occupied inherited estates.

In this dissertation, I characterize monumental architecture on Tongatapu, particularly the form and distribution of earthen mounds. Aerial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) survey in 2011 revealed the totality of monumental and community-level construction on Tongatapu. Thousands of mounds and other earthen features, the product of some 1,000 years of funerary behaviour, chiefly competition, and conflict, are highly structured in their arrangement on the landscape.

Using a combination of automated and manual identification approaches, combined with field checks, I have mapped and characterized the mounds and other features of Tongatapu. The distribution of mounds and other monumental features reflects key elements of Tongan culture and socio-political organization, namely, the segmentary, clan-based spatial organization associated with ramage-based societies, as well as the senior-junior ranking that made Tonga the most socially stratified culture in the Pacific.

The LiDAR imagery also revealed evidence of the first royal “capital” of the political dynasty that would rule Tonga for nearly a millennium. Massive earthen platforms at this site suggest strategic use of power by an emergent elite at a time of apparent population increase and resumed oceanic voyaging from West Polynesia after a 1700-year hiatus.

Keywords: Kingdom of Tonga; landscape archaeology; remote sensing; monumental architecture; burial mounds; social inequality