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Hawaiian petroglyphs: Ancient ways in present days

By Staff | Dec 18, 2014

Guy Junker paints an original honu (turtle) petroglyph on a wooden panel during a Friday night art demonstration at Diamond Head Gallery on Front Street. “In the background, I am blocking with a neutral under-painting to bring out the shapes of the honu petroglyphs,” he explained. PHOTO COURTESY OF GUY JUNKER.

OLOWALU – People throughout Hawaii recognize that the true future of the islands stems from its past. Many speak about the importance of the ‘aina and the need to protect it with proper conservation and preservation efforts.

Petroglyphs, once described as abstract objects, are an irreplaceable, historically important feature of Hawaii. Viewing them away from the modern world is a powerful reminder that you are visiting a land rich in history and culture.

Archaeologist and art historian Dr. Georgia Lee stated in her book, “Spirit of Place: Petroglyphs of Hawaii,” “Times have changed, and the field of study for petroglyphs has grown. In recent years, much more information has become available about ancient Hawaii and the Hawaiian petroglyphs.”

“Scholars suggest that belief systems inseparable from the culture permeate the petroglyphs, and that the two are mutually intertwined,” said Lee.

Through the development of symbols, petroglyphs helped to put man on the road to writing. The word itself comes from the Greek word “petras” (rock) and “glyphen” (to carve).

The Olowalu petroglyphs are some of the most accessible on Maui. They are made up of geometric designs and human figures. As with most of Maui’s petroglyphs, these figures are carved into the vertical sides of cliffs and are over 300 years old. A dirt road starting behind the general store in Olowalu will lead you to them.

Literally, petroglyphs are rock carvings or kaha ki’i, a scratched picture. The ancient Hawaiians also called them ki’i pohaku, stone images.

“It is vital that Hawaii’s petroglyphs be studied in their contexts, for they are intimately related to their natural settings,” said Lee.

Possible uses for ki’i pohaku may have been for indicating land division, navigation, celebrating a personal experience or acknowledging ancestors.

“According to kupuna accounts, petroglyphs were used to indicate the connection of specific families to places such as a spring or cave shelter,” said Sierra Club hike leader Lucienne de Naie.

“Most researchers describe petroglyphs as being carved with a hammer stone and a pecking tool, the latter a piece of dense basalt with one end ground to a finer point. Age is currently determined by charcoal dating that associates petroglyphs with site areas that date back 600 years,” she said.

There are more than 100 locations throughout the islands that contain Hawaiian petroglyphs. Olowalu is the easiest location on Maui to access and observe them. However, “they are also found along a number of natural gulches and in certain lava flows on the island,” de Naie said.

Petroglyphs are not randomly placed. Most of the ancient carvings are found in groups at places that the Hawaiians believed had a concentration of the cosmic force known as mana.

The ancient Hawaiians had a close integration among all aspects of life. What may seem to be a religious ritual or an act of magic could as well be described as a custom, a practical necessity or a useful technique.

The student of the Hawaiian petroglyphs must face this ambiguity, since many of the various types seem to reflect actions, intentions and meanings on several levels at once.

In present days, the petroglyphs are being seen from within the framework of our own artistic values. It is not often that you come across modern art that carries the texture and essence of something several thousand years old.

Lahaina artist Guy Junker’s work remarkably bridges that gap, providing an opportunity to preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and apply it to our modern times.

Junker’s work reflects his study of an artistic craft that represents petroglyphs as some of the earliest artifacts of humanity.

“Hawaiian petroglyphs are one of my favorite subjects,” Junker said. Contrasting the natural curves of petroglyphs with hard geometric shapes painted on textured wood panels, Junker creates forms otherwise difficult to produce on traditional canvas.

“My work is about a unique display of contrasts – ancient symbols created in a contemporary style,” said Junker. “They are simple rock drawings, but things that look simple are often difficult to master.”

Despite spectacular high-rise buildings, beautiful plunging mountains, tropical scenery and great surf to distract him, Oahu resident and professional photographer Sean Davey is also drawn to petroglyphs. In fact, he has produced what may be the most extraordinary petroglyph photo to date.

“Located within the seven-mile miracle between Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are the most unique petroglyphs that I’ve ever seen,” said Davey. Usually covered in a layer of sand some 20 feet deep, these amazing carvings are exposed only every few years – and then for a very small amount of time.

“These petroglyphs rarely see the light of day. It happens only after several very large swells manage to move the sand away temporarily,” he said. “I have seen them uncovered only once in the 15 years that I have lived in Hawaii.”

In essence, Hawaiians and people living in Hawaii today are connected to the land. While observing petroglyphs, we can listen to the wind and imagine what it must have been like here hundreds of years ago.

The Sierra Club offers educational hikes that teach participants about petroglyphs and discuss how to conserve them for future generations. For information on Maui hikes, go to www.MauiSierraClub.org.