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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nan Madol

The megalithic city of Nan Madol lies on the eastern shore of the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, and was the ritual and ceremonial center for the ruling chiefs of the Saudeleur dynasty. Consisting of a series of artificial islets (small islands) linked by a network of canals, Nan Madol is often called the “Venice of the Pacific.” The islets were constructed by placing large rocks and fill atop submerged coral reefs to form raised platforms, which supported elaborate residential and ceremonial complexes. The complexes were built primarily from columnar basalt, a volcanic rock that breaks naturally to form massive rodlike blocks that make an ideal building material.

Encompassing more than ninety islets, at its peak Nan Madol may have been home to a thousand people. Although many of the residents were chiefs, the majority were commoners. Nan Madol served, in part, as a means by which the ruling Saudeleur chiefs both organized and controlled potential rivals by requiring them to live in the city rather than in their home districts, where their activities were difficult to monitor. The highly stratified social system at Nan Madol is the earliest known example of such centralized political power in the western Pacific. Within the city, social hierarchy was reflected in the size of the residences built within the compounds, the largest being the homes of the chiefly elite. Excavations of these elite residences have revealed the presence of beads and other ornaments, which may have marked their owner’s social status.

An intriguing aspect of Nan Madol is the close correlation between the oral history of the site, passed down through the centuries, and evidence unearthed during archaeological excavations. For example, oral traditions make references to small canals cut into the islets, allowing sacred eels to enter from the sea so that they could be honored through the sacrifice of captured sea turtles. Subsequent excavations have revealed traces of both the small canals and the sacrificial turtles. Recently, archaeologists have begun creating computerized reconstructions of the city in order to gain insights into its original appearance.