Forbidden Island First Pacific World Heritage Site
ANU Media Release
News from The Australian National University
MONDAY 14 JULY 2008
Forbidden Island Is First World Heritage Site In Pacific
The mass grave of a chief on a forbidden island in Vanuatu has been chosen as one of the first cultural sites in the Pacific added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, thanks in part to the efforts of ANU researchers.
The small offshore island of Artok, where Chief Roi Mata was buried together with more than 50 members of his community, has been protected by traditional prohibitions for four centuries. Also included in the World Heritage property of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain are the sites of Roi Mata’s residence, at Mangaas on Efate Island, and of his death in the large chamber cave of Fels, on Lelepa Island.
Chief Roi Mata’s Domain is the first site in Vanuatu to be granted World Heritage status, and shares the honour of being the first cultural site to be listed from an independent Pacific country with the Kuk Early Agricultural Site in Papua New Guinea.
ANU researchers played a leading role in the successful nomination of Chief Roi Mata’s Domain. In 2004, Dr Meredith Wilson and Dr Chris Ballard of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) at ANU were invited by Ralph Regenvanu, Director of Vanuatu’s National Museum and Cultural Centre, to work on the nomination together with the museum and the Lelepa community.
“Chief Roi Mata’s Domain is a unique cultural landscape,” explained Dr Wilson, who led the team that put the site forward for World Heritage protection. “It’s not just that the mass voluntary live burial is exceptional relative to the small size of the local population, but also that the descendant communities have observed the prohibition on the island for four centuries.”
Dr Ballard, the project researcher, said: “The oral traditions of Roi Mata and his legacy of peace-making that are still being told by the Lelepa community actually guided French archaeologist José Garanger to the grave in the 1960s, and accurately predicted much of the detail uncovered by his excavation.”
The nomination process was supported by the Division of Pacific and Asian History, RSPAS, and assisted by the Australian Government’s Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
ANU researchers also played a central role in the successful World Heritage inscription of the other Pacific cultural site, the Kuk Early Agricultural Site in PNG. Archaeologist Professor Jack Golson from RSPAS and his former ANU students, Dr Jon Muke and Dr Tim Denham, have spent many years working on the history of Kuk, the site of some of the earliest agriculture in the world. A buried network of drains in the Kuk swamp has revealed an almost unbroken record of agricultural practice stretching back at least 7,000 years.