Flaked Glass Tools & Leprosy in Paradise

Back in 2008 I worked with my good friends James Flexner and Jesse Stephens on Moloka’i, the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We recorded surface middens and opened up very small excavation test pits in the leprosarium on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island. Kalaupapa is very isolated–it is cut off from the rest of the island by the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas on three sides.

Contour map showing the study region

The settlement is equally fascinating and tragic; people suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were quarantined in Kalaupapa and Kalawao from 1865 to 1969 and they constantly struggled to obtain sufficient food, clean drinking water, clothing, and shelter–add this to being isolated from their families and former communities and the health problems that arise from Hansen’s disease such as losing sensation in your extremities.

Another interesting aspect of the island is the eventual presence of Father Damien. He served as a Roman Catholic missionary, ministering to the inhabitants and eventually built St. Philomena Church. When we visited the church, James pointed out the holes in the floor next to the pews where parishioners could relieve themselves of one of the afflictions of the disease–excess saliva–without disrespecting the church by spitting on the floor. There is also one next to the altar. Father Damien eventually caught leprosy too.

Father Damien has recently been canonized, and the potential for tourism in Kalaupapa National Historical Park is high, but will not be fully realized until the last of the residents of the leprosarium has died. When we were there, access to the park was very restricted, and we had the densely forested uplands and gorgeous beaches to ourselves.

This is me documenting the flat rocks where a house built on posts formerly stood.

While I was working there on James’ project, we collected and documented the historical assemblage–rusty bits of metal, ceramics, broken glass, and animal bones. I started to notice something strange about the glass though–some of the edges appeared to have usewear on them. Usewear is the damage that archaeologists can identify on a sharp edge  of stone tools. I was cautious though–depositional processes can play havoc with glass. I had just finished an analysis on Ishi’s glass points and debitage in the Hearst Museum (click here for a bit more information on that tragically unpublished paper) and was attuned to worked glass.

James and I did a bit of experimental archaeology, documented in comic book form:

(The rest of it can be found here: https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/utilized-glass-and-experimental-archaeology-in-kalaupapa/)

Essentially, it appeared that given the dearth of resources available to the residents of the leprosarium, and that metal rusts at an extremely rapid pace, glass was used both expediently (you find a shard, you use it to cut something) and was worked–we found what appeared to be a clear glass blade formed from a flake. Given that people suffering from Hansen’s disease lose fine motor control, it is an especially interesting technical innovation. We found a few instances where the necks and bases of bottles were preferentially selected to provide large surfaces to grab on to.

Finally, this innovation is especially interesting in that the communities on Hawaii do not have a history of making blades from stone–The obsidian that occurs there is very small and nodular and is usually worked into 1-2cm sized flakes from bipolar reduction. Flaked (or chipped, if you are British) glass is seen as a quintessential “contact” artifact, showing the use of introduced materials into cultural practices that were based around obsidian or flint.

James and I coauthored a paper on the project, which then turned into a chapter in The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture. We’re pretty excited that the book has finally been released! Here’s the full citation:

Flexner, J. L., and C. L. Morgan (2013) The Industrious Exiles: An Analysis of Flaked Glass Tools from the Leprosarium at Kalawao, Moloka‘i. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by J. J. Card. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, pp. 295-317.

We’ve been asked not to upload proofs of the chapter yet, but in the meantime you should check out James’ other articles on Kalawao. He’s got a whole lot of them uploaded on Academia.edu:

Flexner, James (2012). An Institution that was a Village: Archaeology and Social Life in the Hansen’s Disease Settlement at Kalawao, Moloka‘i, Hawaii International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 16 (1), 135-163 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-012-0171-4

Kalaupapa Archaeology


Aloha!  I spent last week in Kalaupapa, a northern peninsula on the island of Molokai in Hawaii.  I’ve been helping a fellow graduate student out with his dissertation research on the historic lepertorium here on the island.  It’s particularly relevant as Farther Damien, a missionary who came to the island and ended up getting leprosy himself, is getting sainted and then the whole peninsula–hereto mostly isolated–will go mad.  Access to the peninsula is limited to a small plane and a steep hike up the highest sea cliffs in the world.  I went top-side for the weekend, up all 29 switch-backs, picking ripe guava along the way to snack on. 

During my first week here we worked at a site that had a chimney still standing.  The locals speculated that it had been a bakery, but the archaeology seems to indicate otherwise.  We opened up a few test units and found a lot of nails and a huge concentration of melted glass–much more than at surrounding sites.  Any ideas?  In one of the test units I found what looked like a foundation–stacked stones with just a bit of mortar sticking to one of them–but it didn’t pan out in the other units that we opened up surrounding it.  It’s a bit difficult to look for architecture here, as it’s made out of black a`a` (a kind of lava rock), which is all over the place on the island and typically robbed to create other structures and kicked around a lot.

We also planned and tested a site that was post-on-stone construction in the middle of a large date palm forest.  The trees kept dropping fruit all around us and the ground was just positively hair with roots.  Kalaupapa has been amazing like that–we eat frest fish, breadfruit, oranges, and avocados that we gather ourselves and that the locals share with us.  It has been an incredible experience getting to know the community and the archaeology, not to mention being able to jump in the gorgeous clear blue-green ocean each day after work!

Unfortunately I was only able to get a few photos uploaded, due to the vagaries of internet access (and no cellphone signal), but I should be able to share more once I am back on the mainland.

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