Success in paradise

Five weeks after the initial problems brought on by my last minute surgery, I had regained more mobility in my foot. Finally I was able to execute my original plan from the beginning, of doing systematic surveying on Tridacna shells in the lagoon. On Mo‘orea, I, along with my fellow graduate student Summer Moore, had the opportunity to go out into the lagoon with three local Tahitians whom we worked with on the excavations. We paddled outriggers to an outer area of the lagoon on the east coast of the island. From there I selected a pole that was embedded in a coral to be my starting point for the modern survey. I systematically worked my way out from the pole towards the outer reef measuring the Tridacna while they were still embedded in the coral. The work could be tedious and the shells difficult to find in the coral heads so the others helped me look and record my measurements. I certainly was not expecting the collection of measurements to be easy, but the work was even harder than anticipated and would have been almost impossible without additional help. Also, the supplies I purchased with money from my Reves Center grant were essential to the collection process and if I were to do it again, there are a few other tools I would have purchased in addition. Valuable lesson: you only truly know what you need and are up against after doing it once. Despite the difficulties, I complied over 75 samples for the one area alone, which already significantly increased the modern Tridacna shell measurements available.

The author with the help of two Mo‘orea locals snorkeling in the lagoon looking for Tridacna shells. The author with the help of two Mo‘orea locals snorkeling in the lagoon looking for Tridacna shells.
The author doing measurements of Tridacna shells in the lagoon of Mo‘orea.

The author doing measurements of Tridacna shells in the lagoon of Mo‘orea.

While still on Mo‘orea, we also used our local contacts to help us reach out into the community to meet elders and conduct interviews with them about shells and their uses both in the past and present. Before the interviews, Dr. Kahn and I assembled a list of questions to ask and laminated papers of the most common bivalves and gastropods identified in the Society Island excavations from 2014. The questions included those about which shells are most commonly ate, how they are cooked or prepared, and alternative uses for the shells. My neighbor and her family friend were immeasurably helpful in the interviewing process. Both could speak Tahitian and French, effectively bridging the language gap that often exists between the elderly and current generations. They would ask the questions to the interviewees in Tahitian, since it was their first language, and then translate the answers to me in French for recording. I did not anticipate the language difference, but fortunately Dr. Kahn’s experience and knowledge of Tahitian culture covered my inexperience. This situation reinforced the value of working with someone closely tied to the people and culture of where I was researching along with the need to know at least one of the dominant languages spoken in a foreign country.

Conducting interviews of locals about the uses of shells in French Polynesia.

Conducting interviews of locals about the uses of shells in French Polynesia.

The author interviewing locals about the uses of shells on Mo‘orea.

The author interviewing locals about the uses of shells on Mo‘orea.

The interviews produced a wealth of knowledge about historical uses of shells based on personal experiences and oral histories passed on. Additionally, the interviews opened an avenue of communication to speak with individuals of the public about the research and archaeology we conducted on the island. Many expressed interest in the work we did and shared personal stories about their lives on the island and lifestyle changes on the island over time. Doing interviews helped me foster a stronger connection with the locals and learn about life beyond the research goals we had set out for the project. I appreciated the research gathered from the Tridacna shell survey and interviews, but I did not realize till I was doing them how amazing the experience alone would be. I enjoyed every minute of the work I was able to do and the experience has only fostered a deeper desire to continue work in Oceania archaeology.