The Kwamera area had one of the richest archaeological landscapes recorded for this project. John and Mary Matheson, a Canadian couple, were the first missionaries to settle in the area in 1858. They built an early house by the coast, but after a series of illnesses they had to go on furlough to Aneityum and Erromango to recover their health. When they returned to Tanna, they built their house higher on a hillside as it was thought that this would provide a
healthier environment. The hill was named ‘Imua’, a local orthography of ‘Samoa’ in honour of the first missionaries on Tanna, who were Polynesian.
We partially excavated the Matheson’s second house (Imua Mission) in 2014. We recovered an incredible assemblage from the site, including one of the largest collections of 19th century pottery from an archaeological site in the Pacific. There was 16.6kg of pottery sherds representing at least 36 vessels in the assemblage, and we excavated less than half of the archaeological deposits from this house. Most of the vessels bear the ‘Arcadia’ transfer pattern produced in Scotland by J.P. Bell and Co. There was also a ‘Selter’s’ stoneware mineral water bottle fragment from Germany. The site yielded buttons, a ceramic figurine, and a shell pendant in addition to large amounts of architectural material. The richness of this assemblage relates to the site history. In 1862, after a series of deadly measles outbreaks, the Mathesons were identified as dangerous sorcerers and had to flee Tanna in the middle of the night. They would have left their household possessions behind as they fled.
The Tanna mission remained largely abandoned until the late 1860s. In 1869, William and Agnes Watt, Scottish missionaries, set up a mission station in Kwamera. Their mission building was a combined house and church structure (Watt Mission). Excavations of the front step of the building uncovered an 800-year old burial. We think this area was a sacred burial ground. Local people believed the spirits of the dead could cause illness and other problems, so it is possible they encouraged the missionaries to settle in this place as a test of spiritual power. Historical photographs also showed a number of outbuildings behind the house. Unfortunately, the area has mostly been disturbed by 20th century construction activities, but we did recover a small assemblage of mission-period artefacts from test excavations. Included among the artefacts were clay tobacco pipe fragments, buttons, and stoneware.
At Kwaraka and ‘New Kwaraka’ (Anuikaraka) we got an opportunity to excavate a Melanesian village site about 2km away from the contemporaneous mission. Excavations of a mound at Anuikaraka recovered cobbles of red ochre (probably imported from neighbouring Aneityum Island), pig bones and teeth, and a stone adze blade. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from this site revealed that the area has been inhabited continuously since at least the 1600s.
The sites are associated with stories about Iarisi, a local chief who interacted closely with the missionaries. Up the hill from the mound at Anuikaraka is a stone enclosure that was said to have been inhabited by Iarisi and his fellow converts. Tensions within the community about the new beliefs had caused the converts to move across the river from the main village at Kwaraka. Excavations in the enclosure area recovered almost no imported material. The only likely mission-related object was a single fragment of a clay tobacco pipe bowl. Missionaries often believed that trade was the key to winning converts, but the archaeology suggests that imported things remained rare in local villages. (Some things that don’t survive, such as trade cloth, would not appear archaeologically, but even so it is surprising how little imported material was recovered from the site).
Across the river in Kwaraka, the landscape consists of a series of stone mounds and walls. There is a large stone enclosure that was part of an imwarim (kava-drinking ground) at Irumien. The mounds may have been built to raise houses and other buildings above the muddy coastal plain during the rainy season. One of these mounds was used as a canoe shed for Iarisi’s canoe, Paru. Shovel test pits from around the site again recovered little archaeological material. Excavation of one of the mounds found 20th century material in the
surface deposits above the rocky construction fill. An adjacent traditional house was excavated, and again the material was from the 20th century, including a plastic toy soldier. This material is valuable, as it shows the continuities in patterns of village life on Tanna from before the missionaries arrived through to the present.