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MICRONESIA

Mysterious Nan Madol, Pohnpei

 

 

Although dozens of ancient sites exist on Pohnpei, none exceeds the elite centre of Nan Madol in architectural magnificence. Indeed, no greater record of prehistoric achievement exists in all of Micronesia than the 92 islets of ancient Nan Madol.

 

Set apart on the main island of Pohnpei, the ceremonial centre was the scene of human activity as early as the first or second century AD. By the 8th or 9th century, islet construction had begun, but the distinctive megalithic architecture of Nan Madol probably was not begun until perhaps the latter 12th or early 13th century. 

The Environs of Nan Madol, Pohnpei, based on
the 1983 U.S. Geological Survey of Pohnpei.

The elite centre was a special place of residence for the nobility and of mortuary activities presided over by priests. Its population almost certainly did not exceed 1,000 and may have been less than half that.

Madol Powe, the mortuary sector contains 58 islets in the northeastern area of Nan Madol. Most of the islets once were occupied by the dwellings of priests. Some islets serve special purposes, such as food preparations on Usennamw, canoe making on Dapahu, and coconut oil preparation on Peinering. High walls surrounding tombs are located on the mortuary islets of Peinkitel, Nandauwas, Karian, and Lemenkou.

An impressive portal marks the entry into the mortuary
 enclosure of Nandauwas, the crowning achievement of Nan Madol.

Walls up to 25 feet high surround the royal tomb compound of Nandauwas.
 The centre enclosure contains the islet's largest crypt, flanked by additional tombs to the north and south. 

The second entryway in Nandauwas leads to the inner courtyard and central tomb,
where the remains of the deceased saudeleur and, later, the nahnmwarki were interred.

The crowning achievements of Nan Madol is the royal mortuary islet of Nandauwas. Here, walls of 18 to 25 feet high surround a central tomb enclosure within the main courtyard. Karian anchors the east corner of Nan Madol on the edge of the reef facing the open Pacific. Karian's most distinctive feature is its handsome main entry portal below a massive lintel supporting the upper wall. Peinkitel is built partly on the shores of Temwen Island, one of the few islets in Nan Madol not bounded on all four sides by the waters of the lagoon. Here within a secondary enclosure, lies a large tomb that is said to contain the remains of the legendary Isokelekel. The hero is supposed to have conquered the saudeleur and instituted the nahnmwarki title system that persists on Pohnpei to this day.

The mortuary islet of Karian anchors the east corner of Nan Madol.
An unusual archway gives entry to the courtyard.

The 260-foot long north wall of Nandauwas sweeps gracefully upward at its ends.
Naturally formed prismatic basalt was laid in skillfully fitted stacks to form the wall.

Madol Pah, the administration sector contains 34 islets in the southwestern area of Nan Madol. This was the area of dwellings for the nobility. Kalapuel was said to have quartered Isokelekel and his warriors when they first came to Nan Madol.

A network of waterways interconnected the islets of Nan Madol, while immense seawalls and break-waters protected the island centre from the unrelenting waves of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the islets were rectangular in plan, and all were constructed artificially with cores of coral rubble fill. The majority of the islets were surrounded by retaining walls of basalt boulders and stacked prismatic basalt.

Walls extending above islet basis usually consisted of prismatic basalt stacked in alternating courses of headers and stretchers and filled with coral rubble. Often immense, the megalithic prisms weighed up to five tons or more and sometimes exceeded 15 feet in length. The megaliths were taken from quarries on the mainland, floated to the remote lagoon site on raft, and lifted into place with ropes, levers, and inclined planes.

An aerial view of Nandauwas shows the outer seawall
facing the Pacific Ocean. Karian appears to the upper right. 

In this picture, the walls of Nandauwas appear at the top of the picture

The architectural monuments of the saudeleurs in some sense united all of Pohnpei, as well as solidifying the social system of ancient Pohnpei. The prehistoric architecture of Nan Madol is the living symbol of the social institutions that long ago brought the magnificent monuments into being.  

               

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