Upon her death, Chiefess Kala‘iheana, the daughter of famed Maui moi Pi‘ilani, was deified through Hawaiian ritual as a mo‘o akua, or sacred lizard goddess. Her moniker then became Kihawahine, and tradition speaks of her as protector of the place of her birth—the exclusive domain of her royal forbearers—a kapu island called Moku‘ula. Located in Lahaina, it’s the grotto that, legend tells, she will forever inhabit in her giant lizard form, swimming the surrounding Mokuhinia pond and waterways.
“[Moku‘ula] was called the Venice of the Pacific,” said Dr. Janet Six, a lecturer in anthropology at University of Hawaii Maui College, addressing members of the media after a ceremony and Hawaiian blessing last Saturday. Early explorers likened the area—now revered as one of the most significant archaeological sites in the state—to Italy’s famous city after observing Native Hawaiians using the causeways for single-man canoe travel.
Radiocarbon dating suggests Moku‘ula has been inhabited for more than 1,000 years. The area was remodeled in the mid-18th century to accommodate Kamehameha III, and, though ancient traditions were rapidly being abandoned and kapu sites covered by Christian churches, the Moku‘ula remained a final holdout of the old ways. But over time, what was once the pride of Lahaina—the former capitol of the Hawaiian Kingdom—became a derelict remnant of “pagan” times.
Vacant and in disrepair during the late 1800s, the site “just [sat] for 20 or 30 years,” said Dr. Six. The once-thriving “fishponds, fresh water springs, islands, causeways, retaining walls, beach berms, [and] residential and mortuary buildings,” as described by the 1997 National Register of Historic Places report, became a nuisance to the growing sugar industry and were reduced to little more than a stagnant breeding ground for mosquitoes. Consequently, in 1914, the lot was, according to the Register, “buried by coral and soil fill,” and became the oddly undulating, little-used ballfield it is today.
But, Dr. Six explained, the century-old burying of this sacred site—and its relatively untouched state thereafter—will lead to its resurrection. From what is known as the “1914 fill event,” the area experienced, “what we call in archaeology, a ‘Pompei premise’—it just gets capped,” beamed Dr. Six. “That is great for archaeology.”
Dr. Six compares the site to the Giza Plateau and Machu Picchu, using words like “amazing” and “unbelievable.” She said she tells her students, “In the future, you’ll be telling your grandkids [you] worked at Moku‘ula.”
In 1993, an exploratory dig by the Bishop Museum produced exciting findings from just three feet below the surface. Artifacts from both pre- and post-contact—such as a preserved wooden plank pier and a sweeping basalt retaining wall believed to run the circumference of the Moku‘ula island—have inspired a more thorough dig. Ultimately, the goal is a total restoration of Moku‘ula.
“I think [plantation owners] sensed the importance of the place, because they built a small railroad and brought dirt in from the quarry—and they dredged the harbor,” said Dr. Six. The cane dirt, added to the fill from the harbor, “just sealed it,” she said.
“If they would have put a hotel here, done trenching, we’d be lost, right?” said Dr. Six, motioning to the surrounding infrastructure of modern Lahaina. She then pointed across the street to the shops at 505 Front Street. “That over there we’re probably never going to reclaim. Even if we were able to peel up 505, it’s so disturbed. Whereas here—except for a few sprinklers that only went down about a foot—there hasn’t been much poking around.”
“Yellow, ochre, saffron and gold—all of those colors represent the deity Kihawahine, who once resided here,” said Sen. J. Kalani English, in a pillowy mahalo speech made after the blessings. English commended the university’s educational endeavors and praised the Hawaii Tourism Authority for “seeing the light” and providing a $30,000 grant to the project.
Despite the dryness and attendant yellow hues, there’s a natural spring on the site. Add rain and high tides, and the ground is easily saturated. “Once we start to peel it back, the water is just going to bubble out,” said Dr. Six.
All this wai presents some challenges for the team—composed of Dr. Six’s UH students and volunteers from the public, accompanied by field school students from East Coast universities. “We’ll excavate the dry fill very differently than we’ll excavate the wet,” said Dr. Six. “You want to be very careful of artifact orientation to get an idea of what fell when.”
What researchers will learn from the dig—which Dr. Six estimates will go on for “several years”—will undoubtedly add to, and perhaps even change, our understanding of Hawaiian history. Funding, as ever, is a challenge, making public involvement essential. Community members willing to get down and dirty have the opportunity to learn alongside university students, under the tutelage of Dr. Six and other experts from all over the country. (Those interested in participating can contact the program coordinators at 661-9494 or visit mokuula.com.)
“We’ll move a lot of dirt,” Dr. Six says. “But right now, we’re using a shovel and trowel very, very slowly.” Dr. Six’s exuberance, like the buried spring with supernatural connections, bubbles forth. “Once we open up next Saturday, it’s going to be exciting.” –Anu Yagi, MauiTime