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Encounters with Archaeology while climbing

Although there is potential to encounter archaeological sites and artifacts in most areas throughout the islands, individuals are most likely to encounter sites and artifacts in areas where modern development has been minimal or absent. Typically, these are the places where climbers and outdoor enthusiasts tend to find themselves.

Archaeological Sites: Stacked Stone Structures

On O‘ahu, one of the most common types of archaeological sites near outdoor recreation areas are stacked stone structures of basalt and sometimes coral. Structures can include remnant agricultural lo‘i terraces like those seen in Maunawili and Valley of the Temples, heiau and shrines like at Waimea and Kea‘iwa at the head of ‘Aiea Loop Trail, and linear walls with various functions like the beautifully stacked basalt wall running near to Nu‘uanu Stream in the valley. One of the best ways to spot these structures is to look for features on the landscape that stand out, investigate for organized stacking or piles of rock that appear “out of place,” and see if the stacked rock or piles are part of a larger alignment, mound, or platform. Even disorganized piles of rock sometimes indicate a former structure that has deteriorated and even the best-preserved structures will usually have portions where stacked rocks have destabilized and collapsed. Other structures that may be encountered include historical irrigation infrastructure near old sugar cane fields and former places of habitation like Kaniakapūpū, the summer palace of King Kamehameha III. Typically, if you come across something structural in an area that is no longer actively inhabited or occupied, it is likely archaeological and may be of significance.

What do you do if you come across archaeology of this sort?

Regardless if you think it is traditional Hawaiian or of the historical era– be respectful, leave it alone if you have no purpose for being there, appreciate with your eyes but do not touch or move things unnecessarily, and definitely don’t take anything home with you unless it’s rubbish or invasive plants for discard. If you cannot find a way around a structure and must go over it, be mindful and choose a path that will result in the least amount of impact to the structure. This could be an area that is already destroyed (as long as it is stable enough to hold you) or a sturdy tree root that has grown through the structure. Tread lightly! There is no need to report these types of archaeological sites to any authorities. In most cases, especially on O‘ahu, these sites have already been recorded by archaeologists. Please keep in mind that the State of Hawai‘i and private landowners do not have the resources to actively maintain or protect all cultural and archaeological sites. This does not mean these sites lack significance or don’t deserve respect.

Archaeological Sites: Artifacts

Less commonly than structural remnants, it is possible to encounter artifacts in areas of archaeological sites or even lying randomly on the ground surface. Technically, anything over 50 years old can be considered an artifact but not all artifacts hold equal significance. Identifying artifacts tends to be a bit tricky as traditional Hawaiian artifacts may be unrecognizable to the untrained eye and historical artifacts may appear so similar to modern trash that they are not recognized as artifacts at all. Traditional Hawaiian artifacts are made of natural materials including (but not limited to) basalt, volcanic glass, shell, bone, sea urchin, and plant materials that only preserve in very specific conditions. Lithic (stone) artifacts are some of the most common in Hawai‘i, usually recognized by morphology and wear patterns. Morphology refers to obvious physical attributes such as a stone shaped into an angular adze, ground into a smooth disk, or pecked away to form indents and specialized shapes. Wear patterns on the other hand can be nearly microscopic and consist of evidence for production method used to make a tool, or the function a tool was used to perform (e.g., a stone used for grinding or polishing will be worn down and smooth in some areas). For artifacts made of shell, bone, and sea urchin, indications of human modification are usually more clearly displayed. Artifacts made of these materials include fishhooks, awls, abraders, and ornaments. Common historical artifacts include glass bottles, ceramic wear, metal implements, and general utilitarian goods.

What do you do if you come across archaeology of this sort?

What to do if you come across artifacts while outdoors varies depending on the type of artifact and whether you are on public or private lands. However interesting or valuable historical artifacts may sometimes be, identification of traditional Hawaiian artifacts comes with greater sensitivity. Typically, no private landowners or governmental agencies are going to be very interested in the stash of historical glass bottles you found in the jungle. They may however be interested in an ulu maika or poi pounder, especially if it is nearby a known traditional Hawaiian site. In most cases it is best not to move any artifacts you come across and, in most circumstances, it is regarded as unethical to take an artifact home with you. Whether or not you should take further action really depends on the situation—for instance, if you find a poi pounder exposed and easily visible on the side of a busy trail, it may be acceptable to relocate the artifact to a more discreet location in the immediate vicinity until appropriate action is determined. If you are on private lands, it is important to know that any material objects located within the land parcel belong to the landowner. If you know the landowner, it is best to alert them of your find. If you do not know the landowner, or have other reasons not to communicate with them, your next course of action is to alert the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE). DOCARE is also your best contact if you find significant traditional Hawaiian artifacts on public lands. If you personally know an appointed cultural practitioner or steward of the land where you have identified a traditional Hawaiian artifact and believe it is best to contact them directly, this may also be an appropriate course of action. Only an appointed individual from the community (cultural practitioner or family steward) or professional (government official or hired or archaeological firm working under direction of the state) should move a significant artifact from where it was identified.

Archaeological Sites: Skeletal Remains

Once in a blue moon, people navigating through remote landscapes encounter skeletal remains, or possibly ‘iwi kupuna. ‘Iwi kupuna can be disturbed and dislodged from their original resting place by natural causes such as tidal shifts that expose ancient burials in coastal sand dunes, or erosion, exposing ancient burials up mauka. Another place where ‘iwi kupuna can be encountered is within caves upon hillsides and cliffsides.

What do you do if you come across archaeology of this sort?

If you come across skeletal remains that appear to be human, it is important that you contact DOCARE immediately. There are many reasons for this, many with very real modern implications. It takes a highly specialized expert to make the distinction between an ancient burial and a potential murder victim. When you call DOCARE, the skeletal remains will be examined by a professional osteologist to determine if they are human, a police report will be made and it will be confirmed whether or not the remains are truly of ancient or historical origin, and consultation will occur to ensure the ‘iwi kupuna are treated properly and put to rest in an appropriate manner. Photographing ‘iwi kupuna is prohibited and highly insensitive, so when in doubt, don’t take pictures of any skeletal remains you come across.

If you have any questions regarding land access, archaeological sites, or other potentially significant finds you encounter during your outdoor endeavors, reach out to Kanaka Climbers for assistance determining the proper course of action.

DOCARE, Non-Burial Related: (808) 587-0066

DOCARE Burials: (808) 692-8015


Written by our amazing archaeologists who are taking time out of their own busy schedules to help spread awareness, find cultural and historical evidence to areas we are connected with, and helping us educate our entire community. Mahalo nui for all of your hard work and dedication. We couldn't do this without you!

*Access concerns: Every climbing location in Hawai’i is access sensitive. Please do not post directions or geotag photos. This website does not give you permission to access any lands, either public or private. Climb and enter at your own risk, remember YOU represent the entire climbing community. If a member of the general public or state agents asks you to leave, it is best to go.

Written by @kolealani

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