Kohala Field System ‘Sweet Spot’

The Kohala Field System, as seen from the air. The field system stretches along a rainfall gradient that is just below the crest of the Kohala Peninsula. This gradient is the ‘sweet spot’, which receives just enough rain to allow for dryland farming of sweet potato, but not too much to leach out the nutrients in the soil needed for adequate growth. The linear ridges you can see in this photo were built of stone and earth approximately 600 years ago, and placed perpendicular to the wind in order to create a low windbreak. These breaks may also have been used for growing sugarcane and banana, which would have broken the wind even further, and sheltered the tender sweet potato plants below. The field system, and all of Kohala, was an incredibly productive garden in antiquity. Malama ‘aina.

Urchin. It’s what’s for dinner.

Aloha kakou. This is what archaeological midden looks like in Hawaii. Sea urchin (wana) were collected by wading or diving in the shallows by the reef, and their internal organs and roe (eggs) were consumed raw. What was left over were their tests (shells), spines, and the hard parts of their mouths, which form a unique structure that biologists call ‘aristotle’s lantern’, due to its five-sided lightbulb-like shape. In this picture you can see the remains of the thick-spined red slate pencil urchin (ha’uke’uke ‘ula’ula), the spines of which were used to grind fishhooks, and also the diadem urchin (wana), and perhaps also a few other species. These urchins were collected and consumed in Kohala, Hawaii, approximately 300 years ago. Malama ‘aina.

Owners of the Shade

More owners of the shade. This photo is from the excavation of a house foundation in Makeanehu ahupua’a, in Leeward Kohala. Hawaiian houses in antiquity were not large, but regularly made use of stone platforms as the foundation for a wood and thatch structure. Layers of mats would have covered the floor, creating a smooth surface for living on. Throughout the Pacific Islands, mats made from pandanus were (and still are) a part of everyday life. Mats cradle new babies, cover the beds of newly married couples, and shroud the coffins of the dead. I have two mats from Fiji that were gifts from friends; I treasure them. Malama ‘aina.

Kohala is HOT!

Let’s get back to the HEAT. Archaeology on Pacific Islands can be wet or dry, but most of the time it is HOT– scorching, drill-your-brain HOT. This photo was taken from beneath our ubiquitous ‘shade tarps’, which we installed over excavation units in Leeward Kohala. Anna Browne-Ribeiro and I are extracting marine shell midden from a seiving screen in this photo. The ahupua’a (traditional land-division) of Kalala was rich with farmland and a rocky coast for fishing and collecting mollusks. We found the remains of 1000s of ancient meals embedded in the floors of Hawaiian houses. Malama ‘aina.


June 2006, my students conducted an archaeological excavation of the Upper Halawa lo’i. A lo’i is made by constructing a set of terraces, either of stone or of earth, which is used to pond water across a broad area. Kalo (taro, Colocasia esculenta) can grow in dry soil, but it produces larger, juicier corms if it is planted in shallow water that can slowly drain, bringing in nutrients and oxygen. We excavated beneath the walls of the lo’i of Upper Halawa in order to collect tiny flecks of charcoal, which were deposited when the land was cleared and the lo’i was constructed. In that way, we can determine the age, using radiocarbon dating, of the installation of the lo’i. Malama ‘aina.

Upper Halawa

Upper Halawa gulch, in windward Kohala. Several sets of loi were constructed in this gulch approximately 400 years ago, and back then this place would have been sunny and open, with nodding beds of taro leaves in every corner. Today this narrow gulch is shaded by a creaking forest of shaggy-barked eucalyptus, and its floor is a fragrant nest of ginger flowers. Malama ‘aina.


The black beach of Pololu valley may have been one of the first places colonized by Hawaiians. Located on the windward side of Kohala, the valley is wide and deep, with a high series of hanging valleys at its back. In 2006 Michael Graves and I began a project to investigate the archaeological collections of Pololu, which had been generated in the 1970s by a series of field schools directed by Dave Tuggle. Their excavations revealed deep deposits in the sand dunes at the mouth of the valley, at the base of which were a series of fire hearths that were packed with twisted and burned fibers. After sitting in a jelly jar for over 30 years, Gail Murikami identified the fibers to be native fern, hapu’u. I submitted a sample for radiocarbon dating, which revealed that the ferns were burned between AD 1259-1390. Pololu is an old place that was once filled with people, but is now a wild place, with quiet groves of invasive guava mixed between abandoned terraces that were once used for growing taro. Malama ‘aina


In Kohala we got up early, usually around 5 am, so we could be in the field by 6:30. Pueo, the Hawaiian owl (Asio flammeus sandwichensis) would sometimes be waiting for us on a distant fencepost, watching the grass for scurrying rodents that were startled by our jeep. Pueo are becoming a rare sight in Hawaii, as light pollution disrupts their twilight hunts, and predators like introduced rats and cats destroy chicks and eggs in the nest. I treasure the memories of seeing them glide soundlessly overhead; it was a beautiful way to start each amazing day. Mahalo. Aloha ‘aina.

Winds of Kohala

Aloha kakou. Archaeology in Kohala is always windy- your ears burn, your eyes stream, and you end up with dirt packed into every crack of your body and clothing. The winds in Kohala even have names, depending upon when and from where they blow. Sweet Kris (hair-in-my-face) and Jillian Swift (the coalminer, aka @swiftasafox ) are in this picture from 2009, excavating a platform that was once the foundation of an ancient Hawaiian farmhouse. Aloha ‘aina.