This year's SAA Conference in Vancouver was the opportunity for several noted Pacific archaeologists, Dr. Mathew Spriggs, Dr. Frederique Valentin, Dr. Stuart Bedford and Dr. James Flexner, to see first-hand two unique artifacts which are, presently, part of the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology’s collection. The “Naamboi jars” were donated to the Museum in 1985 by Dr. Richard Shutler Jr. who was, the chair of SFU’s Department of Archaeology at the time. Shutler had worked extensively in the South Pacific in the 1950s and ‘60s excavating at different sites, including the island of Malekula in what was then the New Hebrides. The territory was managed jointly by France and the United Kingdom until 1980 when the independent pacific island nation of Vanuatu was formally recognized. The Republic of Vanuatu is located 1,750 kms northeast of Australia, east of New Guinea and west of Fiji. Malekula is the second largest island in the Vanuatu archipelago.
The Naamboi jars are “sacred pottery” – originally used ceremonially as part of a ritual and mythological complex involving sex and fertility. Later, they are believed to have been used in funerary rites and were used as grave markers. Dr. Shutler found the jars in this context on the surface at an abandoned mountain village site on the west coast of Makekula in the early 1970s. The relatively intact jars are among the few examples of their kind and are believed to be approximately one thousand years old. The larger of the two SFU Naamboi is the largest one known.
Several years ago, a representative of the Vanuatu Department of Education was visiting the SFU Faculty of Education saw the Naamboi on exhibition in the SFU Museum Gallery and spoke to Dr. Barbara Winter, the Museum Director. This began a discussion between the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and SFU, facilitated by archaeologists from Australian Universities who are conducting research in Vanuatu.
Dr. David Burley, the present chair of SFU’s Department of Archaeology, whose research in nearby Fiji and Tonga is important to the understanding of the prehistory of the South Pacific was instrumental in bringing the project participants together. All agreed that the jars should go home. They are to become the center piece of a new exhibit at the Vanuatu National Museum in the capital of Port Vila. The transportation of the jars from SFU to Vanuatu is being made possible through the financial support of the University of Sydney, Australia and Dr. Flexner’s Australian Research Council Discovery Project funding. Along with the jars, several other more recent ceramic pieces of heritage interest and boxes of research notes made by Dr. Shutler on Vanuatu are also being returned.
In 2004 the island of Malekula was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yalo and Apialo are two “spirit caves” located on the west side of the island. Both have been described as natural monuments where their cultural features, spectacular rock-art, blend with their natural surroundings. They are the best examples worldwide of an associative cultural landscape, according to UNESCO.
PHOTO: Dr. Barb Winter, Director of the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology points out a design feature on the smaller of the two Naamboi jars being repatriated to Vanuatu. Looking on are (left to right); Dr. Mathew Spriggs from Australian National University, in Canberra, Australia, Dr. Frederique Valentin of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, in Paris, France, and Dr. Stuart Bedford, also from Australian National University. Missing from the photo is Dr. James Flexner from the University of Sydney.