Collection fishing, Writing systems

Just how wrong-o is this Rongorongo board?

I came across this outstanding paleograph sitting quietly in a glass case in the Archeology and Anthropology building of my university. The quality of the image is somewhat reduced due to the fact that I was pressing my phone against the pain. The caption reads ‘Easter Island rongorongo board with approx5 500 glyphs, collected in 1870.’

2014-07-22 15.52.00

Easter Island rongorongo board with approx 500 glyphs, collected in 1870

According to the Wikipedia entry on Rongorongo, this artefact would represent one of only 26 known objects worldwide bearing a Rongorongo inscription. Considering that Easter Island may be the last place where writing was independently invented — after Central America, the Middle East and (perhaps) China — it’s remarkable that such a rare item is sitting casually amongst a collection of Austronesian and Southeast Asian sherds and flake tools.

Of course, the question of whether Rongorongo represents actual writing remains vexed as does the authenticity of many of the surviving artefacts. The meaning and traditional use of Rongorongo has tormented scholars from their earliest encounters with it.  By the time examples of Rongorongo were being collected for analysis, no literate Easter Islanders remained and the wooden texts were being used for fishing spindles or being burned as firewood. If Rongorongo is writing, as we know it, there is no consensus as to what kind of system it represents or whether the glyphs are merely mnemonics for the oral reproduction of ritual speech.

The date of 1870 suggests that this specimen was collected on the O’Higgins scientific expedition to the island in which the famous Rongorongo text I was obtained. I contacted the person responsible for maintaining the exhibit who then contacted the original collector, the archeologist Professor Peter Bellwood who gave the following succinct and highly informative reply:

“I bought it in Santiago in 1975. If it wasn’t a replica it would be worth millions, and certainly not in that glass case! It is probably made of plaster of Paris – not to be dropped.”

Mystery solved.

 

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