In their days of glory, the rulers of Pohnpei island in Micronesia awed the populace with their power, and the people built a religious and political center made marvelous by its monumental architecture. Basalt boulders weighing as much as 50 tons and thousands of large basalt columns were stacked to create massive structures unrivaled in the palm-fringed realms of the western Pacific. Tombs, ceremonial precincts, and homes of the elite and their attendants dominated the site, which sprawled across some 200 acres just offshore. Landfill of coral rubble enclosed by basalt retaining walls raised a shallow reef area above the tide level, creating 92 man-made islets where the enclave known as Nan Madol flourished.
Tunnels made of coral slabs channeled water into pools visited by sacred eels. Storehouses held supplies of coconut oil that anointed the bodies of the nobility in life and upon death. Waterways among the islets carried the traffic of outrigger canoes; laden with yams, taro, and breadfruit, these would pull up to the stone docks, bearing tribute from the main island of Pohnpei to the mighty sovereign, the Saudeleur, in Nan Madol. From their tropical Venice the Saudeleur dynasty governed Pohnpei, a steamy, mountainous island about 13 miles in diameter, lying just north of the Equator. Scholars estimate the population of Nan Madol to have been as many as 1,000, with about 25,000 living in scattered communities on Pohnpei itself.
Much about the Saudeleurs and the construction of Nan Madol remains in doubt. No one knows for sure how the Pohnpeians managed such feats of engineering. How did they raise mammoth rocks as high as 25 feet without beasts of burden or wheeled vehicles? Was it fear or devotion that motivated the swarms of workers who moved countless tons of coral fill and quarried and transported thousands of basalt columns? The baffling ruins keep other secrets: Scholars ponder why Nan Madol was built, why it was located offshore, away from the main island, and why it was abandoned.
By the time the Europeans came upon Nan Madol in the 19th century, they found it deserted and overgrown with vegetation. James F. O’Connell, a shipwrecked seaman who came ashore about 1828 and entertained the Pohnpeians by dancing an Irish jig, was probably the first foreigner to visit the site. In his journal he described the “stupendous ruins” as a place of deep solitude, not a living thing, except a few birds, being discernible.” The native who guided him there “seemed struck dumb with fear” when their canoe landed, and “could not be induced to leave the boat.” O’Connell also noted that “fruit grows, ripens, and decays unmolested, as the natives can by no persuasion be induced to gather or touch it.”
Other nineteenth century visitors also encountered the local reluctance to visit Nan Madol, for the Pohnpeians believed it was haunted by the spirits of their ancient rulers and imbued with the magic powers that had been used to move the huge rocks. Some people are still uneasy about lingering there.
Nevertheless, ceremonies were performed on some islets from time to time. American missionary Luther H. Gulick witnessed a celebration at Nan Madol in 1854 and left an account that provides a glimpse of age-old practices, which for a while survived foreign incursions. Gulick saw a large number of canoes “lashed together so as to form a raft before one of the sacred localities.” On board, young men sang to rhythms set by their “small fancifully made paddles.” On the 15th day of the feast, a procession of canoes set out from Nan Madol, towing two chiefs in separate boats. “Songs are sung by the little fleet as it passes along, accompanied . . . by the deep monotonous sound” of the conch shell trumpets that echoed sadly across the still waters.
No music or celebration enlivened the labors of Frederick W. Christian, who dug at Nan Madol in 1896. Like the Irishman O’Connell, he found most of the islets shrouded in vegetation, and he wrote of “hewing and hacking . . . tearing away long festoons of creeper and great clumps of weed and fern” before he could begin to dig. Along with numerous skeletal remains, Christian unearthed shell axes, bracelets, pendants, rose pink beads, needles for sewing mat sails, and fishhooks. These artifacts were retrieved from the main burial vault on Nan Douwas, mortuary center of Nan Madol.
In 1840 sketch of Nan Douwas shows a man inside the central vault handing something up to people gathered on top. The caption says the tomb is “supposed to have been of Spanish origin, owing to the discovery of a gold crucifix and silver handled dirk, with some parts of skeletons. . . .” Other finds of silver coins and European artifacts led to a theory in the 19th century that the city was the work of Spanish pirates.
Spanish galleons regularly sailed across the Pacific in the prosperous trade between colonies in Mexico and the Philippines. Today scholars believe the European objects were left on Pohnpei by mariners blown off course on their regular runs between Acapulco and Manila. A local legend remembers the arrival of men with skin so tough they could only be killed by piercing their eyes – presumably a reference to armor.
Some speculations attributed the ruins to Polynesians, Japanese, or residents of the farfetched lost continent of Mu, the Atlantis of the Pacific. European visitors in the 19th century doubted the Pohnpeians built the stone city because, as one trader asserted, “the natives can give no account of it.” Another traveler wrote, “The massive ruins of Ponape are its most remarkable feature, speaking in their weird loneliness of some dead and forgotten race.”
In fact, Nan Madol was never forgotten, for it was memorialized in legends passed down for generations. These stories have yielded valuable information about the special function or activities that characterized each islet, and about the Saudeleurs and the priests who resided there.
“This traditional lore would not be shared with passing strangers,” said archaeologist J. Stephen Athens, who briefed me in Honolulu, Hawaii, before I continued my journey to Pohnpei, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia. “Islanders hesitate to share such sacred knowledge because they believe if a man reveals everything he knows, he will die. Traditionally, only certain individuals had rights to sacred lore.” Like other archaeologists who have worked at Nan Madol, Athens learns what he can from the oral history. He then checks this material against the archaeological record. “But there is no way to document some parts of the legendary history,” he added.
Radiocarbon dates from hearth charcoal indicate that people settled at Nan Madol as early as the first century AD. Around 500 the inhabitants began enlarging sandbars in the shallow lagoon with coral rubble. The splendid megalithic construction, using giant stone “logs” hauled in from the main island (often referred to as the mainland), accelerated between 1100 and 1200 and continued in a massive effort lasting through the 16th century.
Legend attributes the founding of Nan Madol to two brothers – Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa – who sailed with their companions from somewhere to the west, “a place downwind.” They came with a purpose – to build a place of worship for Nahnisohnsapw, the “Honored Spirit of the Land,” bringing with them a “sacred ceremony.” After the death of Ohlosihpa, his brother established the dynasty of the Saudeleurs. Stories recall the rulers’ absolute power. One despot demanded even the lice from people’s heads, decreeing a death sentence for anyone who kept the delicacy for himself. Another monarch required that his subjects collect the dew from taro leaves for his bath.
In that vanished world, tropical growth matted the island’s peaks and ridges, and hibiscus bloomed as radiantly red as it does now. The same endless kaleidoscope of clouds brought the torrential downpours that make Pohnpei one of the wettest places on earth. Then, as now, ocean waves crashed against the encircling reef, marking the boundary between azure lagoon and ink blue sea with a wreath of white foam.
Though concrete hoses with metal roofs have replaced thatched dwellings, and pickups supplant outrigger canoes, the people continue to live in a highly stratified society whose origins go back to Nan Madol.
“The architecture and artifacts tell us that it was a very status-conscious place,” says University of Oregon archaeologist William S. Ayres, who has worked at Nan Madol and at sites on Pohnpei over the past 15 years. “House sizes reflected vast differences in rank. Each level in the social hierarchy rated a house of specific dimensions,” he explained. “Shell beads and ornaments were luxury items associated with the upper classes. While these artifacts are not common on the mainland, they are plentiful at Nan Madol, where priests and chiefs resided. Excavations have also identified prestige foods reserved for the elite. These included dog, turtle, and several kinds of large fish, such as parrot fish, which were eaten at feasts.”
Such extreme class distinctions no longer exist, but Pohnpei still reserves special privileges for its titled nobility. Even now commoners bow low before high chiefs and pay homage to them with offerings at formal, communal feasts. And when harvesting crops, people present the first fruits of the land to their district chiefs.
“Protocol at these events quickly reveals who is important,” says Pohnpeian archaeologist Runino Mauricio. “A measure of a man’s status is still the number of pigs and the size of the yams he donates to a feast. An 800-pound yam carried on a litter by 10 men makes a very good impression. Of course, a 15-man yam is even better.”
Another survivor from bygone days is sakau, a slimy narcotic drink essential to every ritual and formal occasion. It is made from pepper plant roots pounded to shreds on a rock with a large, flat surface. Water is poured over the pulp, and the mixture is strained through a wrapping of hibiscus bark strips and wrung into a coconut shell. It is easy to spot the broad sakau stones at Nan Madol, an indication that the rhythmic thwacks that resound through the island today rang through the sacred precinct centuries ago.
While Pohnpeian customs and oral traditions shed some light on the past and evoke the flavor of island life hundreds of years ago, scholars draw much information from the monuments and artifacts. They have dated the stags of islet building. They have mapped the building features on 65 percent of the islets, excavated tools and ornaments, and examined food and skeletal remains. Sometimes archaeology corroborates legend; sometimes there are contradictions. According to tradition, Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa made several attempts to establish a settlement, but they abandoned those early efforts because the chosen sites were too exposed to winds, strong currents, and heavy waves. Proof of this story appears in the fragmentary ruins scattered around the main island. On the other hand, archaeologists question the story that the two brothers were invaders or migrants from the west.
“There is no archaeological evidence of a break with the past,” says Bill Ayres. “Besides, we don’t have to look to another island for the skill and ideas that created Nan Madol. The architecture reflects a gradual expansion of local styles and techniques. Pohnpeians had been using rocks to construct house platforms for centuries, so they had experience in building in stone. Nothing suggests that there were new skills or innovations inspired by foreigners. I believe that a new island-wide political system, not invaders, triggered the sudden massive building program.”
The oral history refers to chaotic conditions before the brothers came on the scene. According to The Book of Luelen, the first effort to record traditional lore, Pohnpei was divided into numerous feuding clans. “They had no ruler. There were no nobles. . . . There were many among them who would eat their siblings . . . if they had an opportunity.” Then, the tale reveals, order was established, the island unified, and the people mobilized in the vast construction project that, with the assistance of magic and the gods, produced the mighty ramparts of Nan Madol.
Like nearly all visitors, I approached Nan Madol from the sea. The ruins are accessible by the rough road that circles the island, but that route requires wading through mangrove swamps and murky canals inhabited by black sea cucumbers and crabs.
Gray wisps of cloud hung over the mountain ridges, but the lagoon was a mirror for dazzling sunlight as I left the state capital, Kolonia, with Emensio Eperiam, Historic Preservation Officer of the Pohnpei State Government. Traveling in a small motorboat, we sped past the fringe of mangrove swamps that holds much of Pohnpei’s coastline in a green embrace.
Emensio gives high priority to retrieving Nan Madol from the rampant vegetation. He faces a formidable task in a landscape so lush even telephone poles are said to sprout leaves. Mangrove trees still barricade many of the 92 islets, screening the basalt retaining walls, and jungle brush buries stone house platforms and other traces of the past.
We had been traveling for about 90 minutes when Emensio turned his boat through break in Nan Madol’s seawall into a labyrinth of channels. Immediately we came upon an awesome vista of stone – a cyclopean wall some 200 feet long, 10 feet thick, and 18 to 25 feet high, looming mournfully above the gleaming waters. In the Nan Madol manner it was built of dark gray basalt columns stacked in alternating lengthwise and crosswise rows. The wall was the outer part of a massive, rectangular double enclosure surrounding a central mausoleum. It had unusual upswept corners that came from adding larger stone logs and extra rows to the ends, giving the austere imposing structure a surprising grace and rough elegance.
We had come to Nan Douwas, the most remarkable site in the ruins. Though more fortress than mausoleum in appearance, it was a place of burial and prayer larger than a football field.
We walked through the main entryway – up the broad, crude steps that led through a gap in the front wall. There were two other entries, so low that you had to crouch to go in. Emensio assumed that, in status-conscious Nan Madol, these were probably designed for use by servants or the lower classes. Just inside was a broad terrace separating the outer wall from the inner one. Coconut palms and slender papaya trees created splashes of shade on the ground. Towering above was a breadfruit tree with a wide canopy of large, glossy leaves that concealed birds calling shrilly from the branches.
We walked slowly along the courtyard between the double walls, passing a small stone burial vault. No paintings or carvings adorned Nan Douwas or any other structures at Nan Madol. No tools had shaped the stones. But the walls possessed a stark, brooding splendor that seemed just the setting for secret and somber rites.
“In ancient times priests would hold ceremonies inside the central vault,” said Emensio, as we approached the rectangular crypt where the bones of the Saudeleurs and high priests were interred. Eight basalt columns weighing from four to six tons each made up a flat roof. In the harsh sunlight the empty crypt looked squat and top-heavy, but one could feel its savage power. I could imagine the hush that fell upon the worshipers who prayed there, beseeching their spirits for aid.
We peered into two other small tombs in the outer courtyard. All the tombs are empty now – rifled or excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Grave offerings were never sumptuous, for tools were of shell or stone, ornaments were of shell; gold and other metals were unknown. The people had stopped making pottery by about the 12th century, perhaps because coconut shells made good bowls , and pots weren’t necessary for baking Pohnpeian-style in an oven made of two layers of hot stones.
In the Pohnpeian language, Nan Douwas means “in the mouth of the high chief,” an appropriate name, Emensio explained, because the islet was as concealed from the people as the Saudeleur’s own mouth. “Few people were allowed to know what took place within its walls.”
Less metaphorical is the name Nan Madol, one translation being “the place of spaces,” which refers to the channels among the islets.
The depth of these waterways rises and falls with the tides, which set a timetable for visits to the site. Our outboard required a minimum of 18 inches of water, so we bypassed nearby Kariahn, whose ramparts once guarded the bones of priests. Instead, Emensio maneuvered through the maze of narrow passages that led from the islets of Madol Powe – the upper town, mortuary center, and priests’ residence – to Madol Pah – the lower town, ritual center, and administrative headquarters, where the ruler lived.
We moved slowly along dark, silty, sluggish canals, past mangroves propped above the water on exposed, arching roots. The low rock retaining walls that bordered the islets were all but hidden by deep, dank jungle. There was little to see but a lot to wonder about. For if some of the walls were low, the sheer number of these naturally formed basalt logs and the scale of the vast construction were awesome.
I learned from Emensio that there is no doubt about where all the basalt prisms came from. Outcrops of large basalt columns, formed naturally when a kind of molten lava cools slowly, occur at several sites on the main island. But archaeologists can only guess at how those columns, some 3 to 19 feet long and weighing as much as 6 tons, were brought to Nan Madol.
Local people provided some information about quarrying and engineering techniques for German anthropologist Paul Hambruch, who dug at Nan Madol in 1910 and prepared a map of the ruins. Islanders told Hambruch that their ancestors lit great fires, heated the columns, then split them (along natural fissure lines) by pouring cool seawater on them. They transported the building material on rafts, using ropes of tough, strong hibiscus fiber. “The building materials . . . were brought into their present position by means of the inclined surfaces of tree trunks, especially coconut palms, using leverage . . . and the tractive force of Hibiscus ropes,” Hambruch noted.
Emensio pointed out that Pohnpeians still routinely move heavy rocks. “Every time any family builds a nahs, or feast house, they have to go up into the mountains to get a sakau stone,” he said. “Thirty of us, alternating in teams of six, recently transported one with a surface as large as a kitchen table. It was hard labor, but it was fun.” I had seen a 1,500-pound yam borne on a litter by 25 men. But what of the boulders weighing between 25 and 50 tons? Wouldn’t such rocks sink a raft, especially in the shallow waters around Nan Madol? “We probably will never be sure how such things were moved across miles,” said Emensio. “All we know is they were brought here form the mainland.”
These marvels are not a mystery to Masao Hadley, a high-ranking chief and historian who has devoted many of his 76 years to compiling lore associated with Nan Madol. Emensio had introduced me to the frail, dignified man in Kolonia, and I recalled his words as we chugged along.
“In those days people knew a prayer called ahmara to make heavy things weigh less, and they used this magic to carry rocks on litters and to lift them onto the high walls. Rocks so large they could not be carried were moved through the air into place by the great spiritual power of some of the priests,” the chief explained. “Such things don’t happen now, but they existed in the days before Christianity came to the island. Even today there are sorcerers who can cause illness and death and others who cue and heal.”
We had passed the islet of Dau, where the guards of Nan Madol resided, and Usendau, once inhabited by priests. These were not high-walled islets, and from the boat they presented vistas of green. Had we stepped ashore we would have seen house platforms rising maybe a foot above the surface with fire pits in the center. An experienced eye would have detected the pattern of holes for posts, which supported walls made of reeds and rafters for the roofs of thatch.
Pahn Kadira was more complex, for it was the residence of the Saudeleur and nearly three times the size of Nan Dauwas. Often referred to as the “City of Proclamation,” Pahn Kadira had several compounds. Walls up to 16 feet high surrounded the dwelling place of the ruler and his family; lower ones defined an annex for his attendants. Fourteen sakau stones have been found on the islet near the entrance to the main feast house. Untidy with jungle growth, desolate in its emptiness. Pahn Kadira has little left to show how the Saudeleurs led their imperious lives. But the arrogant stone walls still stand, affirming the dynasty’s power and authority.
Was Nan Madol a demonstration of political might, an expression of the will to dominate, or was it something more?
University of Hawaii historian David Hanlon believes Nan Madol’s offshore location and imposing walls reinforce the distance between the ruler and the ruled. “Distance bred mystery and intimidation,” he explains in his book Upon a Stone Altar, a history of Pohnpei up to 1890. Clearly the Saudeleurs sought to remain aloof and apart as they “brought order to a contentious land,” writes Hanlon, “but it was an order born of domination.”
“Nothing would grow in the coral rubble that formed the base of the islets,” Hanlon told me. “So the Saudeleurs were faced with the need for tribute in the form of food, as well as the need for labor for the building project that continued throughout their long reign.”
“Did the Saudeleurs coerce the populace – or did they try to convince it?” I asked.
“The oral history suggests that the Saudeleurs coerced workers to build their offshore complex of islets,” he replied. “They seem to have justified their rule by claims to divine sanction. But I believe the Saudeleurs used force and intimidation, rather than faith or persuasion, to get the Pohnpeians to agree to their demands.”
The site itself has a divine association. According to ancient lore, the brothers Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa surveyed it from a mountain. When they saw the underwater stairway that leads to the city of the gods, they knew they had found the right location for Nan Madol – on the “Reef of Heaven.”
Archaeological discoveries in the past ten years also point to religion as the inspiration for the rise of Nan Madol. “Recent investigations have revealed many more burials than previously suspected and suggest that life at Nan Madol was immersed in ceremony and ritual,” says Stephen Athens. He thinks that religion must have been a prime integrating force and that the Saudeleurs probably could not have unified the island without it.
The best known religious center of Nan Madol is the small, strange islet of Idehd, where the saltwater eel, Nan Samwohl, symbol and representative of the Saudeleurs’ great god, Nahnisohnsapw, appeared in a sacred pool. “Once a year a ritual was performed here to beseech the god to forgive the people for their sins,” said Emensio as we stepped ashore. “A turtle was sacrificed, and its entrails were presented to the eel. If the eel accepted the offering, it meant the god pardoned the people for their transgressions. Then the priests and ruler feasted on the remainder of the turtle.”
The first thing we saw was a mound of coral rubble some ten feet high – an accumulation of the stones that had been heated and used to bake turtles for the annual sacrifice. It represented centuries of piety. Unlike other rock, coral crumbles easily; perhaps for this and ritual reasons, the stones were discarded after a single use.
Athens pointed out that the radiocarbon dates for AD 1200 – a significant date. It means that ritual activity at Idehd and building with massive basalt columns flourished at about the same time.
Archaeology also tells us that the accumulation of coral debris came to a halt at the same time construction at Nan Madol abruptly ended. This date, about 1600, also coincides with the overthrow of the Saudeleur dynasty and the partition of the island into three separate chiefdoms.
Oral tradition has much to say about how the Saudeleurs were defeated by a man named Isokelekel and his 333 warriors, who rescued the Pohnpeians from the oppressive rule in the last years of the dynasty. Isokelekel assumed power over Nan Madol in the district of Madolenihmw and created the line of Nahnmwarkis, or district chiefs, which commands respect and homage to this day.
With the demise of the Saudeleurs, the impetus to build massive walls was gone. The might and fervor that made it possible to lavish so much energy on Nan Madol had collapsed. But the memory of its greatness lingers on.