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Remember the Kings

Geraldine Panapasa
Sunday, May 27, 2012

SISILO. A place where revered sau or kings (as they were known back in the days) of Rotuma are buried.

A gravesite in the district of Noatau guarding the islands most treasured artefact the remains and remnants of high chiefs, who once ruled the island with an iron fist.

This would indeed be something the islanders are proud of, the fact that it is still there after many centuries with evidence of early habitants.

Its a taboo area today where no one would even dare tread for the fun of it or think about removing what belonged to their forefathers and ancestors.

But it was not always this way.

Some 27 years ago, there was a bitter feud over the power and right to rule Rotuma, political division regarding the sovereignty of the island community and ownership of ancient artefacts excavated from other burial grounds including the one at Sisilo (an artifact at the centre of much of the 1980s controversy was a sacred shell or cowrie-shell supposedly buried with the last Gagaj Sau Lagfatmaro and possessed by a self-proclaimed leader).

I wasnt born then but from archived publications and accounts from those alive today, that quest for power and recognition had moved away from its original aim of reviving the true culture, tradition and identity of the people of Rotuma.

It was a time when renowned martial arts expert Henry Gibson or Gagaj Sau Lagfatmaro (king of Rotuma-ma) - as he so openly claimed to be caused quite a stir on the island and Fiji publicly voicing he was the ... King of the Molmahao clan which includes the seven districts in Rotuma - in other words, the king of Rotuma.

The debacle continued from 1983 to October 1989 eventually leading to the trial and guilty verdict of eight men charged with sedition a conviction that was later overturned in 1991.

Last week, Sisilo was once again at the centre of attention - this time not over conflicting views of who should rule the island, but more or less, about what to keep for the future generation.

A field team from the Fiji Museum, upon the request of a community member from Noatau, carried out a two-day assessment of the grave site and determine if it would fall under the Fiji Museums protection under the Archaeological and Paleontological Interest Act.

The museums field research officers and archaeologists Sepeti Matararaba and Sakiusa Kataiwai spent their week-long visit with Rupeti Mani of Noatau and his family.

We received a letter from one of the old people from Noatau.

He wanted the site protected because this site is where most of the high chiefs on Rotuma originated.

As far as the museum is aware of, this is also where Henry Gibson had excavated back in the 80s - there was a big case about it, he said.

He excavated this site and uncovered some of the old artifacts belonging to the chiefs who were buried at the site called Sisilo, which is also an ancient village site.

According to the stories we were told at Noatau, when a king dies in their village whether theyre from Motusa or any other village (back then chiefs were called kings), they were brought to Sisilo for proper burial this is why the area is sacred to the people.

I think Gibson was aware of this sacredness and excavated old artifacts that were buried with the chiefs.

He wanted to uncover his ties and believed the artifacts had powers they possessed the powers of the king that died.

Whatever the king owned necklaces, armbands, their attire and even their wives were buried with him.

Mr Matararaba said other grave sites on the island were excavated for the power they supposedly possessed.

The case was settled and nobody was convicted of sedition. When I started at the museum in 1983, our director Fergus Clunie sat me down to explain protocols, what be involved and what happened when he went to Rotuma. The case slowly died out.

On the morning of our scheduled visit to Sisilo, Noataus sub-chief Fonman Inoke decided to accompany our group with Rupeti, and three others.

A 10-minute ride up an upgraded farm road led us to our rendezvous point marked by an uto (breadfruit) tree.

Another path led us past two billygoats on flat land before tangling our ankles in paragrass and weeds.

A little bow here and there through overgrown plants and trees led us to our first find.

This is a sharpening stone for stone tools, Mr Matararaba said, dusting off soil debris and a little moss that covered the surface.

You can tell its a sharpening stone from the groove markings at the centre. Groove markings are a result of tools being dragged across the stones surface like this one scouring out a groove or narrow channel.

This is amazing. The early settlers would have used this to sharpen their tools before they used it for hunting or killing.

There were no other markings near the first stone until we were called to another spot a few metres up.

Before us was an amazing site. Chunks of stone slabs were everywhere, half buried and covered with more moss.

It seemed to have broken away from an uplifted fort enclosure. Around the left side of the circular grave site, it became evident that the roots of the tall trees had forced its way through the cement boundary, breaking through the walls of the gravesite.

We found more stone slabs lying flat at various spots and while at first glance may have looked like it had been moved by nature over the years, it was something else.

They didnt have tombstones to mark the grave of a king so these flat slabs placed this way could be a grave, likewise with the others placed nearby, Mr Matararaba said.

There are more sharpening stones around here but theyre covered with moss and dead leaves.

If you didnt move those away, youd probably think it was just an oddity of nature. At the centre of the gravesite sat what looked to be a stone seat for someone important.

This appears to be a killing ground or something similar. Theres another huge flat stone slab at the centre and a seat as if someone was witnessing a killing, Mr Matararaba said.

Gagaj Fonman added tribal wars and cannibalism was also rife in the time of their great ancestors. He said it was a time when only the fittest could survive.

Some wives were buried with their kings or their husbands, strangled and placed in the same grave with valuables, Mr Matararaba interjected.

This practise went on until the missionaries came and put a stop to it, placing emphasis on the need to value life, Gagaj Fonman added.

Among the shrubs was a four-inch cannon, about a metre long with its nose sitting on two small stones. It was a historical find for Mr Matararaba but a part of history that has long laid insignificant at the gravesite, obviously left to wither away like the other remnants.

This should have been in the museum a long time ago. I dont think we have a cannon like this at the museum so this is a very good find indeed, Mr Matararaba said.

It is an indication of early European settlers. This place could have been a battlefield or war ground as well.

With every find, Mr Kataiwai would place a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on the artifact to register its geographical co-ordinates. He explained the GPS data would then be uploaded onto their system allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of each artefact on the map of Rotuma.

We are trying to determine where all the other objects that were significant to the site itself are, the burial mount or any monument that was put there for certain purposes or the house mount that is still intact, Mr Matararaba elaborated.

We will try to depict that in our drawings, taking pictures and trying to sketch what is on the site itself.

It would also serve as a monitoring factor to their objective of ensuring historical sites and relics are safeguarded against the changing tides.

From our side, we will have to prepare a report on our findings and request the museum becomes custodians of the site, Mr Matararaba said.

We will of course work very closely with the Rotuma Council and the people on the island to help preserve its natural site so that it remains undisturbed.

Its important for the people to be aware of this because it is part of their history. We will also work on trying to put up a buffer zone, like a boundary, about 60m around.

It will be an out-of-bound area if possible. If there are projects taking place around this buffer zone, then we can reduce the zone down to 30 or 20m.

At the end of our visit, Mr Matararaba summed up the challenge for the islanders.

The museum could and would only step into help in preservation efforts if the people of the island requested it. The onus then was on the people of Rotuma and the value they placed on their heritage.

Today, it would be hard to imagine how esteemed the area was to the people of Rotuma because of the overgrown plentiful trees, plants and vegetation suffocating the path and access to the ancient Sisilo burial ground. For now, it lies in ruin waiting for someone to step in to preserve its natural state.

NEXT WEEK: Spirits of the past

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