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Nusa Roviana hillfort and shrines

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 8.3534 S 157.3230 E
No:193        (list of all attractions)
Category:Ancient settlements, Fortifications, Ancient shrines, Sites of legends
Values:Archaeology
Rank:5
Address:Australia and Oceania, Solomon Islands, Western Province, Nusa Roviana island south from New Georgia Island
Alternate names:Nusa Rubiana
Age:circa 1350 - 1800 AD
Culture:Roviana culture
Tiola dog - drawing
Head of Tiola dog, made of coral / Gatis Pāvils, compiled several images, CC-BY-SA-3.0

By the end fo 19th century British administration of Solomon Islands got weary from the constant head hunting expeditions organized by chiefs of New Georgia island and especially - by the sinister Ingova from Nusa Roviana. Marine forces were called in and more than 150 war canoes of aggressive head hunters were destroyed. Troops moved inland, conquered Nusa Roviana fortress and destroyed numerous appalling shrines filled with skulls.

Forgotten history?

Ingova died in 1906, and by that time Solomon Islands were changing. More and more locals turned into fervent Christians and the power of violence and fear was substituted by the power of money.

Many people were happy to forget the times of head hunting and nightmarish rituals. This terror of past seems to be present even in the scientific research - more attention of archaeologists was turned towards the ancient Lapita culture instead of more recent cultures. Nevertheless the jungle of many islands in Western Province was (and still is) dotted with cultural heritage - stone structures, statues, skull houses, agricultural systems.

But it is wrong to state that no one was interested in recent Melanesian history. There has been collected the rich folklore and mapped archaeological monuments.

Nusa Roviana shrine, Solomon Islands
Nusa Roviana shrine, Solomon Islands / , 1872, public domain

Abandoned fortress

By the end of 1990ies there were organized first archaeological excavations in the abandoned settlement of Nusa Roviana.

This exciting archaeological monument is little known outside Solomon Islands. It is located on Nusa Roviana Island - small island near New Georgia Island. In the centre of this island is located forested ridge.

On this ridge is built 600 m long hillfort with four transversal walls made of corall peble and several ditches. Walls are quite impressive: the most impressive part of fortification - Barairiranga - has 3 m high walls.

Construction of such fortress certainly required well coordinated work of large group of workers.

Hillsides of fortress are terraced. There are 20 - 30 terraces cut in corall, adjusted for gardening and residential buildings. To the north from fortress are located remnants of Kalikoqu - ancient seaside settlement.

Shull shrines

The most exciting feature of Nusa Roviana are 13 shrines - each with its own name. These shrines contain human skulls, shell valuables, many other artefacts and there are also weird histories and legends about each of them.

Most shrines are located outside the walls of fortress, on the top of ridge. They represent low, rectangular platforms made of broken corall stone. There are occasional basalt slabs as well - brought from the mainland and having special spiritual significance.

Many shrines are commemorating certain chiefs of Roviana and devoted to ancestral spirits - mateana. These shrines contain small shelters made of corall stone layers, with the skulls of deceased chief and his people inside. Platform around the skulls is covered with offerings. These offerings for most part are broken shell rings, but also steel axes, muskets and even broken China ware.

One of the most important shrines is Olobuki - the main skull shrine in Nusa Roviana. This shrine was considered to be the most powerful and represented a large complex of stepped platforms. In 1993 a Christian group destroyed this shrine and threw away the skulls.

Several shrines were used by priests to curse certain people or to assign mythical powers to Roviana warriors. Two of such shrines are Leo-zuzulongo and Leo, both symbolically linked to the land of Roviana ancestors in Bao. These shrines contain heavy basalt slabs brought from the central part of New Georgia Island.

Most famous is the easternmost shrine - Tiola. This is one of the most mysterious shrines, very well protected by natural cliffs and 3 m high walls. According to local legends it is devoted to a dog who barked in the direction where enemy came. When this dog died, there was made a stone dog which also turned towards the enemy, or rather - towards the direction where warriors should go for the next head hunting.

Nowadays only head of stone dog remains - it is made of coral stone and seems to be decaying fast. This head still was here in early 2000ies and hopefully still is there. It is moved around a bit - in different photographs it is seen in different positions.

Realm of Roviana culture

New Georgia and surrounding islands are dotted with archaeological monuments: skull shrines, megalithic monuments, remnants of fortification walls, all created by local Roviana cultures.

Most ancient structures are located in the jungle of central New Georgia - the largest monument here is Bao complex of settlements. Oldest dated shrine in Bao is built circa 1200 AD. There are many more larger and smaller shrines and other structures scattered around New Georgia and surrounding islands - such as Saikile fortress and megalithic Kekehe with two wonderful carved stone figures. In many places whole forest ground is covered with archaeological artefacts.

Rise of new power in Melanesia

Roviana people consider that their history started in Bao. By that time - in 13th century - they lived in the central part of New Georgia island and occasionally visited coast. It is possible that they were harassed by other tribes and due to this lived inland.

The tribe gradually gained more and more control by producing shell valuables. These pieces of dead molluscs did not have any direct practical application - but somehow, step by step these shell rings turned into local money.

Important changes took place in Roviana society between 15th and 17th centuries. They came to the seaside, and together with their allies - Kazukuru people took control over Nusa Roviana island, overpowering local Koloi and Vuragare tribes in late 16th century. Nusa Roviana was turned into their main fortress and trade centre, using the earlier fortifications which were started in 13th - 14th century.

In meantime the traditions of Roviana changed too - instead of earlier megalithic stone platforms they built their shrines on coral pebble mounds, placing here the skulls of deceased chiefs - bangara. Special broken shell rings with natural orange markings - bakiha - were offered to the deceased bangara.

Bangara enjoyed their power while alive. But they invented also how to establish first dynasties: by telling that they are descendants of ancestral beings, kind of angels - mateana - and by their nature are destined to rule the people. A category of priests - hiama - appeared, supporting the chiefs and supported by them.

Money and fear

Newly acquired power of Roviana chiefs was strenghtened by two powerful tools - money and fear.

Money was produced by Roviana themselves and they established and controlled a wide trade network in this part of Melanesia with, Nusa Roviana was important hub of this network. From Choiseul Island was brought pottery (not produced locally), from Isabel and Malaita - chert.

Obtained wealth was invested in war. Through the terror and temptation, by wealth and through mysterious rituals the men of Roviana were consolidated into dreadful gangs. They attacked and pillaged coastal villages in Choiseul and Isabel and brought home heads of enemies, using them as terrifying adornment of war canoes - tomoko or piling the skulls up in their villages.

Head hunting expeditions were fuelled by the competition of local warlords - who could bring more fear to his enemies, was superior bangara.

In such a way Roviana became a regional power, especially in late 18th - early 19th century, in the times of ruthless Tae-Bangara and his son Qutu.

The advance of European economic structure, military power, Christianity and, well, infectious diseases broke the dominance of Roviana in late 19th century.

Laboratory of anthropology

Whole world is a laboratory of anthropology, indiscretely researched by curious scholars. But the dynamic, distinctive Melanesian cultures were something new for scientists - as if unknown pages were found in a much read, exciting book.

Many scientists have made brilliant career and wide publicity by the research of Melanesian cultures. But this has not been always pleasant to Melanesians themselves - often they have felt as if they are treated as more primitive than Europeans.

May be the research of fairly recent Roviana history sheds some light on European prehistory - but we will never be sure about this. Every situation in history is unique and can not be repeated elsewhere. Also: history has not ended and we never know what the future brings for us.

Map

See Nusa Roviana hillfort and shrines on the map of Solomon Islands!