Image of the first Polynesian adze, identified at surface level (Photo: Nicola Jorgensen)

New evidence for Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island

12 December 2022

Archaeological excavations unearth Polynesian adze-making site

A collaborative research program beginning with local information provides new insights on the Polynesian settlement of Norfolk Island.

Located 1700km north-east of NSW, the small locale of Norfolk Island is home to a diverse population of Pacific and non-Pacific peoples with a unique cultural heritage and traditional practices.

Although most well-known for its European settlement, in particular its harsh penal colony, Norfolk Island was first called home by Polynesian voyagers between c. 1200-1400 CE. Until recently, confirmed evidence of Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island was restricted to a single site at Emily Bay on the island’s south coast where archaeological excavations in the mid-1990s unearthed a series of structural remains and cultural deposits. For decades researchers have searched for further evidence of Polynesian occupation across the island. Excavation in the Norfolk Island National Park last week has finally revealed a definitive second Polynesian site.

This excavation forms part of the Master of Arts research of Nicola Jorgensen in Archaeology  at the University of Sydney, supervised by Dr Amy Mosig Way, Dr James Flexner and Dr Sarah Kelloway (Faculty of Science). Nicola’s research aims to further define the nature and extent of Norfolk Island’s Polynesian settlement through physical and geochemical analysis of the stone artefacts left behind.

“What’s really fantastic about Nicola’s research is that she is able to study the initial stages of Polynesian adze making on Norfolk Island. This is the first local adze making workshop to be analysed, which makes for an extremely exciting research project.”
Amy Way
First image taken of the basalt artefacts eroding from the walking track in August 2018. (Photo: Snowy Tavener)

First image taken of the basalt artefacts eroding from the walking track in August 2018. (Photo: Snowy Tavener)

A Norfolk Islander herself, Nicola visited the island in 2020 to gather information for a research proposal and connected with local man Snowy Tavener who had first identified the new site as an area of archaeological potential in 2018. Noticing similarities between basalt fragments eroding from a popular walking track through the Norfolk Island National Park and artefacts he had seen previously on Pitcairn Island, Snowy was keen for an archaeologist’s confirmation before making any announcement to the wider community. The confirmation of the site soon followed, and planning commenced for a program of excavation to further investigate its origins. Collaborating with local volunteers, including Snowy and his childhood friend Arthur Evans, both of whom trace their heritage to their Tahitian foremothers, Nicola and Dr Way began excavation of a 1m x 1m pit and soon uncovered two distinctive stone adzes which definitively confirmed that the site was Polynesian.

“It was an incredible moment when the first adze appeared. We were not expecting to find something so distinctive, let alone to find it on the first day. For Snowy and Arthur it was also a very emotional moment as it was a real tangible connection to their Polynesian ancestry.”
Nicola Jorgensen
The excavation team

The excavation team. From left to right: Arthur Evans, Dr Amy Mosig Way (behind), Snowy Tavener, Nicola Jorgensen, Deb Jorgensen (front). (Photo: Nicola Jorgensen)

Norfolk Island has always been a mystery in that little is known about where the first Polynesians came from, or where they went when they abandoned the island several centuries before European arrival. The confirmation of a second Polynesian site, at the opposite end of the island from the Emily Bay settlement site, opens up the whole island to the potential for Polynesian activity and confirms that the settlement was more far-reaching and complex than originally thought. Following completion of the excavation, the artefacts will now be catalogued and analysed with a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) instrument to determine their geochemical signature. This data can then be used to determine whether the basalt is a local or foreign material and assess potential levels of interaction or transport in prehistory. Once analysis of the artefacts has been completed, the assemblage will remain on island with Parks Australia who will conduct a broad community consultation to determine their final keeping place.

Story by Nicola Jorgensen. This project was made possible with support from the University of Sydney, Australian Museum, Parks Australia, and the Norfolk Island community. The excavation was funded by the Australian Museum.

Feature image: The the first Polynesian adze, identified at surface level (Photo: Nicola Jorgensen)