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The Mauna Kea Adze Quarry Project:
A Summary of the 1975 Field Investigations

Patrick McCoy
Bernice P. Bishop Museum

Basalt adze quarries and workshops are known on all the major Hawaiian islands, but by far the largest, most complex, and best preserved is that on the island of Hawaii on the south slope of Mauna Kea, extending from about the 8,600 to the 13,000 foot elevation.

The Mauna Kea Adze Quarry Complex (author's designation) is composed of a series of extraction areas and chipping stations — large, clustered areas as well as smaller, isolated ones — with associated religious shrines, habitation rock-shelters, overhang shelters, and open-air shelters.

The quarries extend over an area of approximately 7 1/2 square miles, although most sites are contained in a 1 and 1/2 square mile area between the 11,000 and 12,400 ft elevation.

The Mauna Kea quarries are unparalleled in the rest of Polynesia, and probably in the world. The area is a National Historic Landmark.

In June 1975 the Bishop Museum was awarded a one-year grant by the National Science Foundation for a project ... under the direction of the author.

W. D. Alexander noted the presence of a fireplace and remains of shell fish on the Humu‘ula Trail, at a rock-shelter/workshop that he called Keanakakoi. This name, which translates literally as "cave of the adze," appears on modern maps and is widely, but inappropriately, used today to refer to the quarries as a whole.

The project developed in response to the general lack of knowledge about the technology of production and range of techniques employed in making finished Polynesian adzes...

Technological stages in tool manufacture cannot be fully reconstructed simply from examination of the finished tools — in this case, ground and polished adzes. The final steps in the sequence of manufacture often tend to obscure or obliterate traces of earlier stages of production...thus the best places to look for evidence to reconstruct processes of stone-tool manufacture are quarries and workshops, where one may observe the patterning of waste flakes and cores, and examine semi-finished and rejected artifacts.

The research has the final objective of relating adze production on Mauna Kea to possible cultural constraints or determining factors, such as population increase and developing social stratification. If periods of maximum adze production can be established through dating, then it becomes possible to relate this one form of economic specialisation to developments in other economic spheres, such as agricultural production.

The degree of specialisation implied and the extent of manufacturing activities at this one locality strongly hint that adze production exceeded local needs and that some adzes made on Mauna Kea were traded outside the island of Hawaii.

Most of the quarry complex is located on a broad summit plateau encircling the entire mountain between the 11,000 and the 12,000 ft elevation.

Shrines are simple arrangements of unworked, tabular basalt slabs oriented in upright position, but varying greatly in number. Adze preforms, hammerstones, and waste flakes are frequently present on one side of the upright alignments.

14 features were identified, including open, shallow, basin-shaped and deeper, stone-lined, fire hearths, a stone enclosing-wall across the mouth of the rock-shelter, and living surfaces characterized by bone, shell, adze preforms, hammerstones, etc. on the same horizontal surface.

The [rockshelter] midden contained shell (primarily 'opihi, sea urchin spines, several pieces of coral, bone of fish, bird, pig and rodents, kukui nuts, coconut, and gourd, but little other plant matter.

Adze preforms, semi-finished adzes and hammerstones were distributed throughout the deposits, occurring in a higher frequency at the front of the shelter and outside the dripline. Basaltic-glass flakes and cores and birdbone awls complete the artefact inventory.

Perishable artefacts found, rock-shelter 1, Site 50-HA-G28-14: (a) fire plough, (b) braided cordage — possibly a sandal fragment (c) Cordage — unknown function, (d) Pandanus matting, (e) Knotted end of ti-leaf cape.

Other vegetal remains identified include gourd, coconut, pandanus leaves, ti stalks, kukui nuts, sugarcane, mamane wood and leaves, and various grasses.

Dating of the rock-shelter remains
earliest date - 1424 AD
final occupation - 1657 AD

A single date of AD 1492 (corrected) for Layer IV in Kookoolau Rock-shelter No. 1 indicates broad contemporaneity of adze manufacture in different parts of the quarry complex. It hints at the possibility of a number of task-groups working at one time.

p. 240
Dr. Stephen Porter (Univ. of Washington)...suggested that the Hawaiians were exploiting almost exclusively a single flow of fine-grained, vitreous basalt. The reconnaissance and follow-up site survey confirmed Porter's observation.

p. 242
Thin sterile lenses of oxidised soil between major occupation units in both excavated rock-shelters suggest periods of intermittent use.

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