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Students help in project to locate Moku‘ula island

By Staff | Sep 16, 2010

Dr. Janet Six is leading archeological work to pinpoint the location of Moku‘ula island. Located across from Kamehameha Iki Park, Moku‘ula was home to Maui high chiefs from the 16th to 18th centuries and the Kamehameha monarchy until the 1840s. It contained royal structures and a mausoleum.

LAHAINA — Although not always visible, the fresh spring-fed waters of Loko o Mokuhinia are still flowing, and archeological work to restore Moku‘ula to its former glory is progressing one spoonful at a time. 

Founded in 1990, The Friends of Moku‘ula (FOM) nonprofit moved into its third decade with the launching of the Ka I‘imi ‘ike Program (the pursuit of knowledge) earlier this year in partnership with the University of Hawaii Maui College Archeological Field School at Moku‘ula.

The for-credit course is crafted to continue with excavations at the sacred site started by Bishop Museum in 1993.

Dr. Janet Six is the archeologist/professor assigned to the dig situated at the south end of Lahaina’s Historic District at the 500 block of Front Street.

“The class is Archeological Field Methods; we call it a field school. Someone that comes out of this class could go work for an archeologist, because they know basic excavation skills, data recovery methods…,” Six said.

The pier at Moku‘ula was recently unearthed.

With limited funding available, FOM’s decision to join forces with U.H. Maui College was an economic choice.

The Friends of Moku‘ula Acting Executive Director Shirley Kaha‘i considers the educational partnership a positive.

“We were going to hire the same archeologist that we had used in the previous dig. Because we didn’t get all our funding, we had to think of another avenue. Actually, I prefer this one, because it is involving students, and they’re getting to learn,” Kaha‘i said.

“I think Janet is brilliant. She knows her archaeology and has done a ton of research. With Janet doing what she’s doing, it’s a win-win-win situation for the college, for Moku‘ula and the students,” she added.

“It will help by saving money in restoration through training students, the next generation, on how to do protocols and good archeological procedures,” Six noted.

The fall semester schedule started the last week in August and continues to mid-December. The onsite field classes in Lahaina are held on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Its first exercise on Sept. 3 was to re-inter the old pier discovered by Bishop Museum in 1993 and reopened this past summer, when funding was released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“Even if it was found earlier by the Bishop Museum team,” Kaha‘i commented, “it was real exciting for us… just being able to see the water … to touch the water… that was something that I just cannot describe. We know that it’s there — the big picture is there.”         

The vision of the Friends is noble: “People coming from all over the world to the restored royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom to learn about spirituality, values, technology and traditions in order to replicate the successful renaissance of an indigenous culture.”

Six’s quest, however, is more specific and part and partial to the overall master plan. She mapped it out in the 33-page “Archeological Data Recovery Plan” (DRP) dated February 2010.

Basically, Six summarized the plan to her students at the second class: “The task of the DRP is to find the edge of the island.”

“Her goal,” Kaha‘i explained, “is to just locate the island but not to go down into that level. They’re going to get to the top of Moku‘ula, but they’re not going to dig into Moku‘ula. They are just trying to outline it.”

Twenty-five-year old Ikaika Kapu is a student in the program at U.H.-Maui and a lineal descendent.

He was impressed by the first two days of the class.     “Just seeing the water and knowing that it’s under there pretty much shows that there is life under this baseball field, under this basketball court, under this parking lot. It just shows that there is life under there, and it wants to be awakened,” he commented.

For centuries, Moku‘ula was the sacred piko, the umbilicus, of the Hawaiian islands.

It served as a political and spiritual center from ancient times, including the emergence of the Maui Kingdom, the unification of the islands under Kamehameha, the introduction of Christianity and the period when Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii (1837-45).

The island is surrounded by a freshwater, naturally formed spring-fed fishpond known as Loko O Mokuhinia, home to the powerful lizard goddess, Kihawahine.

According to the DRP drafted by Sixth Sense Archeological Consultants, “Waters were diverted from Lahaina, in the service of sugar cane production, and the Mokuhinia ponds and wetlands became a stagnant breeding ground for newly introduced mosquitoes. In 1914, plantation managers had the site drained and filled, and this once most sacred site became a baseball diamond for plantation workers.”

Today, it remains buried under 60 centimeters of fill under an abandoned baseball field at Malu-ulu-o-lele Park.

The Army Corps of Engineers is working simultaneously to restore the wetlands.

“This is a separate project,” Six explained.

Her role is to outline the island.

“We don’t want them to get anywhere near the island with their back hoes. It’s nine acres, and they can’t do it all by hand. We want to make sure that we know exactly where the edge of the island is,” Six said.

Kaha‘i is meeting with the corps later this month, and an update on the status of the restoration of the wetlands will follow.